THIS is a big, bold, cunning, impassioned, plangent and very funny book. It opens with the apparent suicide of Crispin Salvador, the Grand Old Man of Philippines literature. An isolated and exiled figure after years of controversy, one of Salvador's few friends is a young man, Miguel, also from the Philippines, who took his Creative Writing Class.
Miguel knows that his idol was working on a final, mammoth book, The Bridges Ablaze, which would have exposed the corruption of leading Philippines dynasties; a novel that would have done for their country what Marquez did for Colombia, or Grass did for post-war Germany, or Rushdie for post-partition India. It too is missing, and Miguel changes from apprentice to biographer and sleuth.
The novel waltzes in three modes. We get copious examples of Salvador's work – fantasy novels, noir thrillers, historical saga, travelogues, disco-opera, a caustic memoir titled Autoplagiarist – and extracts from Miguel's biography, interspersed with blogs, texts, jokes, interviews, reviews and other apposite literary ephemerata. This is braided with Miguel's first person account of his quest; and, unusually, a third person account of the same events.
This patchwork structure allows Miguel Syjuco to tell both the story of the Philippines while telling the story of the representation of the islands. It's a neatly askance form of history, alert to the subtle manipulations and overt propaganda inherent in national narratives. The form also allows for linguistic cadenzas, as Syjuco mixes Tagalog, dialect, slang, poetic grandstanding and the country's word-heritage from Catholicism, Asia and "Phollywood". In a touching and significant moment, the young Miguel's difficulties with English lead him to talk about the "anals of history".
Although there are riotously satirical parts to this book, there is an emotional core as well: the comedy would lose its tang without the characters' blasted hopes and self-aware inadequacies. Like Steve Toltz's A Fraction Of The Whole, another epic comedy from the southern hemisphere, it deftly negotiates between the absurd and the all-too-real, the cosmopolitan and the local, the nature of failure and celebrity.
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, June 6, 2010