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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating, 29 Feb 2012
This review is from: Ilustrado (Paperback)
The `fictional' account of a Filipino student, chronicling the life and death of his mentor Crispin Salvador (a `real-life' writer and thinker) after the great man's suspicious death.

The narrative is consists of at least seven separate threads, including a first-person account the life and times of the author as an over-privileged youth growing up in Manila and Vancouver; extracts from the work of Salvador; press clippings; a political `history' of the Philippines over that last 150 years; emails between the author and Salvador; hackneyed jokes recast as parts of the narrative and random fragments of text of unspecified origin and authorship.

The book is offered as the work of Syjuco and in the prologue we are led to believe that we are about to encounter a work of scholarly biography. The first paragraph of the narrative propér is a list of the contents of a room, the penultimate item on the list being "a battered set of Russian nesting dolls {the innermost missing}". This image of imperfect Matryoshka dolls foreshadows the form of the whole work.

This is a literary work about literature. There is no plot to speak of: it consists of almost nothing but form and theme. There is some kind of linguistic or logistical trick on almost every page. The theme is the question of veracity and accuracy in biography, autobiography, history and journalism. Syjuco bends or `breaks the rules' with in this regard at every turn.

Crispin Salvador is drawn as a real person, a writer and teacher with a substantial body of work who was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Syjuco has gone to some lengths to make Salvador into a `real' person, including an extensive controversy in Wikipedia and articles planted in the Philippine press. Nothing in the book can be considered `reliable'.

The Syjuco first-person thread contains some very fine writing, genuinely evocative of the atmosphere of the modern Philippines and giving the whole work raison d'Ítre well beyond the trickery which often threatens to turn the book into a joke. As the work progresses, this thread begins to dominate until it descends into something akin to stream of consciousness in the final chapter.

The epilogue precisely mirrors the prologue and reveals what is supposed to be the great twist: the whole book is not in fact the work of Syjuco, but of Salvador himself and that it may be the lost work, Burning Bridges. The mystery surrounding the fate the manuscript of Burning Bridges has been a minor factor in Syjuco's search for the `truth' about Salvador.

ILUSTRADO works hard to fit itself into a genre epitomized by Nabokov's Pale Fire, (indeed it could be read as homage to PALE FIRE) but perhaps is more directly comparable to Roth's Operation Shylock: A Confession, with its layer upon layer of deception and the questions it raises about the nature of authorship and identity. Comparison to Tristram Shandy also seems inevitable. The central flaw of ILUSTRADO is that both PALE FIRE and OPERATION SHYLOCK were written by well-established authors with fine literary credentials. Nabokov and Roth are, at some level, the real Nabokov and the real Roth. However fatuous or ridiculous it may be for a first-time novelist to write a novel about the philosophy and difficulty of writing, Syjuco somehow manages to pull it off.

ILUSTRADO is irritating, absurd, thought-provoking, infuriating, astonishing, highly original, clichéd, delightful, trite, profound and exhausting. It is easy to make a case that it is a `great book', and only slightly more difficult to make a case that it is puerile rubbish. There is no end to the controversy this work may excite.

If Syjuco continues on this trajectory, it is inconceivable that he will not become a major literary figure.
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