40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2010
I guess this is sort of an epistolary novel, and as I'm already struggling with what to say, I'm also going to go with "hard to describe".
The story begins with the death of a Filipino author (Crispin), and our narrator and pupil of the dead author (Miguel) decides to write his biography. The story is definitely more about Miguel and his journey, and about the Philippines, than about Crispin.
The tale is told in a number of different ways. There's the biography of Crispen, snippets from Crispin's writings and interviews, the narrator's story, narrative about the narrator, but not told by the narrator, and some random blogs and other errata.
For me, the book gets extra points for the way in which it told the story. In many ways, it reminded me of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where a modern day tale is told, but facts of the history and politics of a country are woven in. In Oscar Wao, the historical bits were told in dull, excruciating detail, in microscopic print, via footnotes. This book definitely approached the history and politics in a more interesting fashion. Even still, at times it got a bit wearying.
For the most part, the writing is stellar. Though I certainly felt that the author suffered a bit from 'new-author-itis' where they want to convey every idea they've ever had in their first novel. We start the book with Crispin's bibliography and that goes on for several uninteresting pages, and there's another point in the book where Miguel is flipping through the television channels and describing what's on every channel. 3 1/2 pages worth. Granted, some of it was more of that clever "slipping the history/politics in", but mostly the bit was overdone.
At times I found the writing pretentious and overwrought. Though "my elbow's lebensraum" is clever, (once one has looked the word up in the dictionary), things like "....he was more avuncular than pederastic" felt like he was trying too hard. But then he'd come up with something like this ... "Her hair, dyed such a bad brown it was orange, was pulled severely into a bun on her head like a tangerine," and all the author's other irksome things were forgiven.
I can understand how the literary community loves this book. It's a book about books and writers. It is done in a way that I personally don't think I've seen done before, so I think I loved it too. The epilogue almost made it a 5 for me, but there were too many other little things that kept it from a 5 star read. I won't even allude to how the book ends, only just to say that in keeping with the theme of the book it was creative and perfectly suited to everything that had gone before.
Less could have been more with this book, but it is absolutely a worthy read and I would definitely read another book by this author.
And now I'm off to pursue my goal for the day: To use the word lebensraum in a sentence. Now if I could just figure out how to pronounce it.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2010
This novel just doesn't work for me. It is one of those intentionally kaleidoscopic, hypermodern riffs that provides multiple snapshots on an enigmatic figure, in this case a Filipino author/political activist and all-around out of his skull nomad, whose death is equally enigmatic. It is very hard to make such a style build a coherent narrative. It's not enough to be hip in the writing. Here, kaleidoscopic becomes just episodic. The multiple snippets of scenes, voices and settings do not build to anything. At the end of the book, I felt no more connection to the mysterious Salvador Crispin nor to his narrator-disciple who is searching to reconstruct his life than at the start. The scattershot mixing of styles - blog snippets, in-the-narrator's head commentary, reminiscence, history summaries, press clips--are initially intriguing but in the end tiresome.
An attraction for me in trying out this unfamiliar author was that the book was the winner of the Man Asia prize. I assumed that this had a stature comparable with the Booker Prize and that it signaled the recognition of literary achievement. Without in any way wanting to be dismissive of this worthy initiative, it needs to be placed in context. It is a small competition aimed at bringing attention to new Asian writers, ones with promise that may become sustained achievement. It is sponsored by the Man Group plc, a Hong Kong investment management company. It has a limited number of submissions and is very much for the unpublished to get attention in "literary circles" (its specific target). So this is a book by a new young author. That's it. It is very much a nifty first novel and that is reason enough to try it out. There are some good points to raise. The author is smooth with words but words are not enough to compensate for lack of cohesion, thematic structure and characterization. It's OK-ish but not at all a major work.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
From an outline description, there's a story here - the murder or suicide of a once famous Philippine writer, Crispin Salvador, found dead, floating in the Hudson River, murdered or perhaps a suicide. His final novel, one that he has been working on for twenty years, an exposé that is going to blow apart the whole corrupt system in his home country in literary and critical circles as much as political ones, has disappeared. His closest friend, the author Miguel Syjuco, is given access to his notes and documents of this fictional writer, attempts to build up a picture of the brilliant and controversial writer but in the process of interviewing friends and colleagues for a biography of Salvador, Miguel discovers that he never really knew him.
That's the premise in outline anyway. What else there is of this book is somewhat random and smothered in words and irrelevancies. Short biographical incidents are related of the fictional author's life, illustrated but not illuminated, by seemingly random paragraphs from his fictional works, imaginary interviews, stories related to his brilliance, his notoriety and his exile. Between this and the author's singularly uninteresting reminiscences on his own bourgeois US émigré background, his journey back to the Philippines, dropping in the odd blog posting and running joke along the way, there is of course an attempt to consider in a very post-modern way modern notions of the role of the author, of fiction, of nationality, one's background and the influences of place of birth and family that make a writer singular and potentially a revolutionary.
All of this is all so very literate and clever, and all of it so much deeply tedious rambling. That's not to say that there aren't moments of brilliance and clever observations on the nature of writing and revolution - albeit from a pampered middle-class émigré literary background rather than from a genuine Filipino perspective - but most of them are lost in a morass of references and narrative trickery designed to impress the literati ('Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize'!). For anyone looking for the next Roberto Bolaño, this could be for you. For anyone who thinks one is quite enough then you would do well give Ilustrado a miss.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2010
When the dead body of Filipino writer Crispin Salvador is found floating in the Hudson River, apparently having committed suicide, his student and fellow Filipino, Miguel is suspicious that darker forces may have been behind his death, particularly when there is no sign of Salvador's latest manuscript that threatens to dish the dirt on the sleaze and corruption of the rich and powerful in his native Philippines. In order to investigate further, Miguel decides to write a biography of his teacher and mentor. That's the premise of this book, but it tells you almost nothing about the experience of reading it. This is no straightforward narrative of a regular crime fiction. It's a kaleidoscope of sometimes apparently disjointed writing that gradually comes together to create a story that only starts to come into focus about half way through, but it's not until the final pages where the true picture is brilliantly revealed.
This is not a book to dip into casually before you drop off to sleep at night. Quite simply, if you try to, you won't have the foggiest idea what's going on. The story is told in a wide variety of short `voices'. There is the narrator's story, extracts from his biography of Salvador, extracts of Salvador's writings, blogs by a Filipino literary critic, a series of Filipino jokes, extracts from an interview with Salvador and, most confusing of all, meta-narrative that comments on the narrator's actions. For this reason, it's not the easiest of books to get into and some commitment is demanded of the reader. Persistence is rewarded later on though and it starts to make a lot more sense.
In trying to understand Salvador and the forces that shaped his writing and actions, Miguel explores the complex, myriad of factors that make up the Filipino psyche, and in turn, this of course reveals to Miguel something about himself. There are clashes of big business, post colonial independence (several times), religion, communism, and general political corruption and inequalities. Oh, and a lot or rain. But it's a book about ideas rather than about character or place.
Ilusrado was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 which rewards young Asian writers. In a wonderful piece of irony that you couldn't make up, the prize was awarded before it was even published, and the fictitious Salvador also won a major literary prize for a book before it was published. You can certainly see why Ilustrado was thus rewarded. Not only is it a book about writers, which the literary prizes often appear to favour, but it also pushes the envelope of the novel (presumably in this case, that would be a Manila envelope).
It's a book that would stand a number of readings, even after you know how it ends. There are countless allusions and allegories in the inserted extracts from Salvador's works. Particularly early on, I'm sure I missed most of them and would be fascinated to go back and re-read this at a later stage. As the story progresses they become more overt, or perhaps I just got used to the style and found them easier to pick up on.
The book is unashamedly literary in style and while sometimes the writing is an absolute joy, at others you wonder if Syjuco has swallowed a Thesaurus or is just showing off a little. Also at times, it feels as if he is trying to force too many ideas into the book at the expense of simply getting his point over. This is Syjuco's first novel, and he certainly wouldn't be the first to try to cram too many ideas into his first book. Particularly early on, I couldn't help feeling that if he didn't try quite so hard to be literary, there might be an even more brilliant voice to come in the future. But if you have patience and time to devote to this jigsaw of a novel, you will be greatly rewarded.
The book has much in common with Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna: A Novel and there are hints of Roberto Bolano, particularly Nazi Literature in the Americas (New Directions Paperbook) and even David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas: A Novel, but mostly it's a unique style, and it will be interesting to see what comes next from this author.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2010
The portrayal of philippine culture by integrating it into a grand sweep of history has a fairly prestigious past-- the few examples of the genre have been well received and generally liked. they were like those classmates you had back in high school who you remember having a laugh or two with and throwing a couple back some random weekend at that strip mall you used to live 15 minutes away from. a few good memories and impressions, but you hardly even remember what he was like after all these years. and then a book like ilustrado comes along with a bit of bragadoccio and unusual ideas about philippine culture, history , and its political upheavals to go along with the more usual ones and you feel all of a sudden that you've found a new best friend.
forgive the silliness of what i've said; all i am trying to convey is that syjuco's book, while very much a first novel in its ever so often tentative flow, is at the same time a sterling example of a lyrical, biting, surreal, and most importantly, ambitious and daring piece of work. 'ambitious' and 'daring' are much bandied about, but the shoe fits. amidst page after page of despairing humanity, that the author can prescribe such a convincing and deceptively simple redemption as the expat artist coming back home goes beyond weepy sentimentalism and could in fact serve as a very real battle cry for a talented diaspora.
moving beyond the trauma inflicted by the colonial past and the ruined martial law generation, syjuco attempts to define the new setting of philippine culture (high or low) as it flowers--that is, anywhere in the world there's a job to do or paycheck to collect--and for the most part succeeds. portrait of an artist as a filipino abroad would perhaps be button-holing it, but it's a good place to start with this sprawling, sometimes fuzzy, but always provocative novel. i enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to his next book.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2010
Recently, I saw this title advertised in the New Yorker, or maybe in The London Review of Books. Since I like reading novels by authors from around the world, I bought the book. Normally, after I finish reading a book that I find valuable and well written, I give it to other people for their enjoyment. But this morning I did something else: I threw this book in the garbage. Ilustrado is the most technically over-written bit of hyperbole I have ever forced myself to finish. The author has been swindled by fashionable academics into thinking he can write well by using the forms employed in this novel. I hope he learns to be simple.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2011
I admit I did not finish the book. The stylishness was too much for me. Maybe it's not so much the style as the pace? The book is made up of fragments that went from biography to memory to present to history to something else. Maybe he went too fast? Sometimes just a page or two, then switch. The parts felt very disconnected (it probably takes a lot of skill to pull off a good read using this kind of style) and it was frustrating at some point that the book could not just continue on with the story. There's a story in there, just tell it to me, please. Now, after reading only 50 pages or so, I will never know what happened. But, I promise I tried my best.
I wanted to like it. I was very proud to hear of this book by a Filipino author that won an international prize and was published internationally. If anything, I know this is something that will encourage more writers from the Philippines to just get down to it and write. Perhaps the author's next book will be better. I look forward to more from him. Best of luck.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2012
This was a recent winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. In awarding that prize, the judges called this novel "brilliantly conceived, and stylishly executed." Stylishly executed? That should have been a hint right there. I tried, but I couldn't even finish this one. Syjuco show signs of being a very good writer, but the story jumps around so much --- in both location and points in time --- all while offering different narratives, that I lost interest . Like many of the regular Booker Prize winners, this was yet another highly-praised book that gave me a headache and totally puzzled me. I think this writer was trying too hard to be literary, and not quite able to get his story out in a straightforward or lucid manner.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
The word "sprawling" might well have been invented for author Miguel Syjuco's debut novel "Ilustrado," which attempts nothing less than to define and understand a nation (in this case the Philippines) and its people. The conceit of the book has Syjuco exploring the past of his mentor, writer Crispin Salvador, a radical Filipino ex-pat, whose body has been found floating in the Hudson River. By trying to understand what shaped Salvador's life (and, by extension, his own), Syjuco hopes to make sense of his death. This leads to an uncompromising, often brutal look into the Filipino psyche, with all its complexities and contradictions. In this regard "Ilustrado" is boundlessly intelligent and sharp with insight; it asks hard questions and doesn't shy away from uncomfortable answers. It's also quite comic at times, with a lot of heart at its (at times) exquisitely written heart.
So why only three stars? Where Syjuco lost me is in the book's structure. Excerpts from Salvador's writings (including his autobiography) follow hard on snippets from Syjuco's unfinished biography of his friend; first person narratives turn into third person narratives; bits of blogs ABOUT Salvador mingle with transcripts of interviews WITH him; random e-mails are scattered amongst poems, etc.; all jumbled together in no discernible pattern, jumping from past to present to past again. It's an imaginative high wire act, but one that, by its disjointed nature, ultimately undermines Syjuco's ability to sustain a coherent narrative that might keep the reader's attention. At least this one's. (The most successful part of the book for me is the introduction, in which Syjuco explains to us, in simple, linear terms, what the book is going to be about.)
In one of "Ilustrado"s early scenes, Syjuco is sitting on a Philippine-bound airplane, having Very Deep Thoughts. "Someone kicks the back of my seat," Syjuco writes, "as a reminder to stop being so profound." It's a marvelous, candid moment of self-awareness that indicates a writer who isn't (necessarily) taking himself too seriously. As a reader, unfortunately, I found myself too often wanting to kick the back of Syjuco's seat myself, as if to say "simplify, simplify." It's impossible not to admire his ambitions while at the same time be impatient with them.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2010
First, the body. The novel opens with the corpse of Crispin Salvador, the most famous Filipino author, floating on the Hudson River. Thus begins the investigation and adventure of Salvador's protégé Miguel, who returns to his native Philippines to learn more about his literary hero.
Then there's the body of work. A literary collage of narratives, news clippings, biographies, blogs, snippets, memoirs and jokes that can be a bit frustrating to get through at times. But patience is greatly rewarded - after a while, you'll detect patterns forming as the story shapes along quite cleverly with it. And I must say that I was very impressed at the sheer amount of work invested in this collective that brought Crispin Salvador to life - after a while, it was hard to believe that he was just a fictional character.
Overall, I really enjoyed this stellar book, though I'd say my reactions formed a kind of collage as well. There were parts wherein I actually laughed out loud, parts I thought were extremely touching, and parts I got annoyed with because I thought the author was just showing off. But certainly, this novel was beautifully written, and after turning the last page at 4AM, I found myself extremely satisfied and contemplative about the intricate link between the writer and the reader. I will not say anything more lest I give anything away!
"Ilustrado" may not be for everybody's literary palate, but I definitely think it's worth the cause célèbre. Already I see that this novel is fueling debate from both sides of the spectrum. Just for that, I say bravo to debut novelist Miguel Syjuco, who I believe has a wonderful future ahead.