Book review: Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco

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Picador, 308pp, £14.99 Hardback

THERE are novels you devour greedily in one sitting – the literary equivalent of a Big Mac. They're made to be scoffed without thought and on the go, rushed. There's a lot to be said for fast food, in its place, and a lot to be said for novels that give the same quick hit. But they are not brave, bold novels like Ilustrado, Filipino-born Miguel Syjuco's weighty but playful debut which won the Man Asian Literary Prize while still in manuscript.

On a winter morning in New York, the body of Crispin Salvador, the Philippines' most controversial literary figure, is retrieved from the Hudson River. The corpse is battered, and, given Salvador's list of passionate enemies, rumours abound about the nature of the death. Murder or suicide?

The character of Miguel Syjuco (the naming of a character after himself is just one of a host of post-modern tricks) has the same question on his lips. But there's another plaguing him. Having been a student of Salvador at the University of Columbia – both voluntary exiles from their native Manila – Miguel knows that Salvador had been working on his literary pice de rsistance, The Bridges Ablaze, and that the manuscript has vanished since his mentor's death. It was the work that was to haul Salvador back on to the literary stage, and in the process was to create for him still more enemies, addressing as it would the rotten, corrupt core of Filipino high society.

Leaving New York and the tatters of his newly stalled relationship, Miguel travels back to his homeland to attempt to uncover the truth about Salvador's death, the whereabouts of the manuscript, and, equally importantly, to complete his biography of his literary hero, entitled Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived.

So is Ilustrado a quest novel? A murder mystery? No. That would be like describing Truman Capote's In Cold Blood simply as "true crime", or The Godfather as merely "a gangster movie". The mystery of Crispin Salvador's death gives the character of Miguel a reason to travel to Manila, but it is, rather ironically, Salvador's life that gives Ilustrado its legs. He is dead from the outset, and yet the integral cog. That's quite a trick for Syjuco to pull off. And it's just one of many.

What is clear right from the beginning of Ilustrado is that it is concerned with literature as a form. It plays with conventions, often tying its reader up in knots only to have them loosened a few pages later. Even the narrative itself is far from straightforward and it unravels from three different spools: there are the extracts from Salvador's numerous works, including novels, short stories, essays, interviews, his autobiography Autoplagiarist and even from reviews of his writing and his own jokes; then there is the history of Salvador's family – and, in turn, a history of the Philippines as seen through that family – as told in the biography the fictional Miguel is working on; and finally there is the narrative of Miguel's trip back to his native country following Salvador's death, told interchangeably between the fictional Miguel himself and (as if further voices were required) a third person, with both narratives interspersed with blogs, emails and the paraphernalia of modern communication. That's quite a lot to take in and keep track of.

What is astonishing though is the control that the author masterfully manages to keep over all his various narrators. Rather like trying to take a pack of wolves for a walk in the park, one might imagine. And he has made the task still more difficult for himself – and for readers – by blurring the lines of fiction and fact to the point where only Googling will clear up exactly what would be found in a history book, on Amazon or in an online edition of a newspaper and what is purely a figment of this man's dazzling imagination.

Of course, the best advertisement for the novel is that Syjuco's writing is so utterly convincing, his pastiche of other styles of writing so disarmingly on-the-money, that a reader is forced to employ Google at all.

There is no denying that Ilustrado is a tough read. It does not take itself too seriously – indeed, Syjuco is quite adept at the one-liners – but still, what makes it so unique, so adventurous, so clever and so astoundingly assured is also what makes it challenging. There were plenty of ways for a debut author to write a history of his country, a history of a family, the story of a revolution and of the ongoing search for an identity and a place in the world. But Syjuco chose this audacious way. And for that he should be much admired.