Ilustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres–murder mystery, satire, interviews from The Paris Review, everything but the kitchen sink. Miguel Syjuco’s brassy debut novel turns on its head the first accusation thrown in the face of every expat writing a novel set in the Philippines: “Just how authentic are you?”
A manuscript by lionized (or should it be “pantherized?”) Filipino writer Crispin Salvador disappears after his death in New York. This propels his student Miguel to travel to the Philippines, taking it upon himself to connect together the different threads of his mentor’s existence and hopefully retrieve the lost magnum opus. Interspersed between fragments of Crispin’s earlier novels, plays, and newspaper columns, the narrative follows Miguel as he tracks down the different people that Crispin had loved and wronged, unearthing a portrait of a sublime failure.
Reveling in the flimsy divide between the true and made-up, Syjuco names his protagonist–a listless, wannabe writer in self-imposed exile–after himself. Aldrin of FullyBooked.me points out that other postmodernists like Auster and Safran Foer have created protagonists that they have named after themselves, but this device takes on a more political dimension here. Miguel Syjuco’s surname, after all, is a potent one; his own father is a incumbent Iloilo congressman. It practically invites speculation and chismis, since the novel’s Miguel also comes from a family of politicians. Could (and should) the reader conflate Miguel’s ambivalence about the burgis class he is a part of with the writer’s own views? The book brazenly invites these types of questions and more.
Syjuco crams in a distressing number of conceits here, everything from the complicity of the moneyed elite in the sorry state of Philippines, the inherent vacuousness of “intellectual” conversations during book launches, the increasingly grotesque bread and circuses orchestrated for the consumption of the masses. Ilustrado mocks postmodernism even as it wallows in it, going through the techniques like a checklist: bricolage, metafiction, black humor, irony, intertextuality, pastiche. One is tempted to make jokes about having more tricks than a hooker.* But while accusations of bloat is a fair one, this novel is most certainly not a gimmick. Some parts were handled clumsily (like Avellaneda’s blog commenters and the entire length of Miguel’s misguided infatuation with a girl he met in a bookstore) but there are layers within these techniques, becoming clues that lead to a final, mind-bending revelation.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Syjuco maintains that his writing has “stopped trying to explain the Philippines,” yet the novel itself is a struggle for identity and validation, using contempt as a weapon to conceal the perpetual feeling of looking into a culture while being removed from it. The Bridges Ablaze, Crispin’s notorious manuscript, was supposed to be his final salvo against the country that has alternately celebrated and excoriated him, a country he cannot help but write about in the end. We betray ourselves with the fictions we tell.
*To paraphrase The Fashion Show’s Iman