Jan 10, 2012

[Books] Ilustrado

When you come across a book by a Filipino author that proudly proclaims on the cover that it is the recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize, that has to mean something, right? It was enough to get me curious about the book to be certain, although I was a tad skeptical still. It's definitely not the typical kind of fiction that I'd pick up, but hey, we should support our own and all that, right?

It's always tricky to base things on awards alone. I don't automatically trust the opinions of literary circles since what they seem to like and appreciate seems to defy conventional logic and sensibilities. It's not quite as bad as in movies where a greater number of film reviews still reflect how the movie works in the "mainstream". Something just gets crazy among the writing award-giving bodies that makes them seem like they're not in touch with reality.

And that's what this book felt like to me - a crazy drug trip trying to pass itself off as good literature. It may have hit some of the right buttons with the folks behind the award/s, but it really didn't work for me.

Ilustrado is a fiction novel written by Filipino-born Miguel Syjuco, who now lives in Montreal. As mentioned before, the novel won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and the unpublished manuscript also won the Palanca Award here in the Philippines.

The book starts with the death of Crispin Salvador, a writer infamous for his no-holds-barred style of writing. It is assumed that his death is the result of a suicide given his recent troubles in terms of his writing. But one of his students feels there's more to this than meets the eye. His primary grounds for this belief is the knowledge that Crispin was working on another novel before his death - a book entitled The Bridges Apart  or TBA for short.

Thus he decides the best way to find clues related to the missing manuscript is to also write a biography of his mentor as a means to interview the people of his past as he searches for answers. This means returning to his country of birth, the Philippines, and also facing the demons of his own past given his family.

The book is told in a mix of excerpts from Crispin Salvador's supposed works, blog posts by one of his literary critics, snippets from the work-in-progress biography that the protagonist, Miguel, is writing and other narrations of his quest. And given the author decided to give Salvador a rather rich body of work, the quotes come from many different bits from different novels, interviews and whatever in an effort to tell the overall story.

The book was a struggle for me to read despite its relative brevity compared to a lot of the other books I've read. There are a number of reasons why this was so, and it all directly relates to why I didn't enjoy the book.

First, the language. The author, whether because this is really how he writes or this is the persona he wanted to adopt for his protagonist, has a passion for ridiculous words that do little to aid the narrative than prove that he owns a thesaurus. Within the first 50 pages you will be assaulted by delightful passages such as this one:
On my left, my seatmate has long capitulated in the battle for the armrest (involving my performing many a subterfuge and feint, about which he didn't even know), and I relish my elbow's lebensraum.
Seriously, he had to use the word lebensraum, since clearly this was the absolutely most perfect word to use in a first person narrative. I mean come on, this is how the guy talks to himself? And yet he stupidly points how how his use of subterfuge and feints were unnoticed, which is pretty much the definition of a subterfuge. And while the thesaurus behavior does become less frequent as the book progresses, it never truly goes away. And I didn't feel invested enough in the story as a reader to want to keep a dictionary of Wikipedia handy at all times just to get through the book only to have him describe a young woman as having a "plumber's ass" as a compliment.

Then there's the overall format of the story - the weird disjoint use of various snippets to give us more and more of an idea of how Crispin Salvador wrote and all those other news items and blog posts. The whole methodology reeked of trying to be more clever than it actually is - one elaborate gimmick that doesn't really add value to the story. It's the kind of book that a college professor might assign as a reading and have the class piece through each story segment and fragment in the hopes of trying to find meaning and relevance to the rest of the story. But often times I don't think there was a real point to a lot of the bits because when you try to relate them to the prior segments immediately before it, the chances of finding a reasonable connection are next to nill. And don't get me started on how the stories seem to involve a lot of the same names of the characters who are supposed to be active in the "real" world. I can understand Crispin's name coming up in his own books but even the characters that Miguel meets after his death? That's just crazy.

Then we get to the characters, especially our protagonist Miguel Syjuco (who is not our author mind you - isn't that clever, too?) who is horribly unlikable and not one that one can easily relate to. I get the point that he is supposed to embody the modern ilustrado somehow, but he's not the kind of person I'd imagine doing any amount of good for the country. Beyond his ridiculous word use, he seems to possess little redeeming qualities and is just another product of some family that spoiled him more than he's willing to acknowledge. And having been named after the author means that a lot of the feelings of disgust over the character automatically transfer over to him in turn.

The book relies a lot on its ability to present as fact what are obviously elements of fiction. At first the introduction of Crispin is littered with footnotes referring to supposed publications, thus making it seem like some well-researched term paper. In fact there was even a fake Wikipedia page created to further establish the dead author was a real person for marketing purposes, yet another way the author tried to be clever. And then you get all the public and political figures in the story that are echoes of actual people in the country and yet he claims that they are not actually them. And he was so creative about it such as having a rich and powerful "Lupas" family which seems similar to the Lopez family. It's this constant need for double speak and trickery that makes the book even more pretentious that it is - and that's saying a lot, mind you.

The book will string you along for pages and pages with lots of useless side talk and random conversation involving characters who don't really interact with one another but instead only talk at or over each other since obviously that's how all high society people interact, only to lead to you to an unsatisfying and unfulfilling end. It's a book that already feels like a bad deal with the turn of every page and and should you make it to the end it is only then that you'll realize that you've really been had and you've lost a chunk of your life trying to give this book a chance.

Ilustrado is a book written by a man who likes himself a bit too much and probably thinks that given his educational credentials, he's brilliantly clever and witty. Instead he's wordy, droll and rather confused in his writing and I urge you to stay away from his books moving forward. Thus the book obviously rates just 1 stupid segment involving the protagonist watching television as we are treated to a description of every single channel that he flips through out of a possible 5.

And I want to throttle the reviewer who even dared to compare this book to any of the works of Haruki Murakami. What an insult!

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  1. Hot dang! I actually enjoyed this book!

  2. Haha, well to each his own, as always. It just felt like a discombobulated mess to me.

  3. I've known Miguel Syjuco for years; my parents know his parents, he and I went to the Arrneo together, I visited him in New York and Cebu - etc. 

    My younger brother read the book and he won't even lend it to me because he "packed it away somewhere and couldn't be bothered to look for it because," he said, "it's not worth it".

    Your comments seem to emulsify my memory of the author and my brother's memory of the book.

  4. You certainly bring a unique perspective to the table, Jaime - thanks for chiming in!

    I have to admit I nearly gave up on the book after that whole airplane scene I had quoted above, but then I decided that the only way to salvage the time already lost would be to finish the book and tell as many people as possible not to make the same mistake.

    The challenges of wanting to provide a truly informed opinion, hehe