Miguel Syjuco
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Buy *Ilustrado* by Miguel Syjuco online

Miguel Syjuco
336 pages
May 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Crispin Salvador is found floating in the Hudson River on a cold February morning. Was this a suicide–or was it murder? The infamous writer from the Philippines was working on a scandalous manuscript attacking powerful Filipino elites–the ilustrado, or intelligentsia. However, the manuscript has mysteriously disappeared:

“Missing was twenty years of work - a glacial accretion of research and writing – unknotting and unraveling the ties of the Filipino elite to cronyism, illegal logging, gambling, kidnapping, corruption, along with their related component sins.” (Pp. 3-4)
It falls to his student, Miguel Syjuco, to search for the missing manuscript. As the Filipino graduate student wades through Salvador’s past, he discovers a complicated life filled with tragedy, petty disputes and a dysfunctional family. The writer, alienated from his only sister and his daughter, lived a lonely and quiet existence as an academic in New York, yet his novels still incited controversy in his native Philippines. Miguel’s investigation takes readers through a literary collage of Salvador’s life using blog posts, emails, poetry, novel excerpts, interviews, and newspaper clippings.

Miguel decides to document his quest in a biography of his mentor entitled Eight Lives Lived. He paints a picture of Crispin Salvador by talking to his colleagues and reading through his novels and papers, but he still cannot find the missing manuscript. Could it be with his remaining family in the Philippines? Miguel’s own life is falling apart while he writes about his dead mentor. He is also alienated from his family in the Philippines. After running away from his own daughter, his addictions and his powerful political family, Miguel struggles to find his own path in life. He returns to the Philippines to look for Salvador’s missing manuscript and is once more drawn into the life that he left behind many years ago.

Ilustrado is a stylistically complex novel. Readers will notice that the narrator, Miguel Syjuco, has the same name as the author. Two stories are woven together in this narrative: the story of the dead writer Crispin Salvador and the story of grad student Miguel Syjuco. Both writers come from the Philippines and share complicated life journeys. The narrative is full of satire, political commentary and exuberant descriptions. The use of various text forms to tell the story can be confusing. At times, the narrative seems chaotic with multiple storylines, shifting time periods and changing perspectives. Nonetheless, Syjuco’s ambitious and dramatic family saga takes readers on a moving trip through 150 years of Philippine history.

Ilustrado (Miguel Syjuco’s debut novel) won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize as well as the Palanca Award, the Philippines’ highest literary honor. He has done graduate work in creative writing at Columbia University and in English literature at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He has worked as a copy editor at The Montreal Gazette and has had a weekly book review column called “The Biblio-file” on CBC’s Radio Canada International. Although Ilustrado focuses in on the culture and history of his native Philippines, Syjuco’s strong and intelligent narrative speaks to all readers:

“There are only three truths. That which can be known. That which can never be known. The third, which concerns the writer alone, truly is neither of these.” (p. 259)

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Myra Junyk, 2012

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