Monday, 21 June 2010

Book of the Week - Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado

I'm sticking with another overseas writer this week, although in this case a book written in English. Miguel Syjuco (November 17, 1976) is a Filipino writer from Manila and the Man Asian Literary Prize grand prize winner for 2008. He is the son of Augusto Syjuco Jr., a politician allied with the party of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and received a degree in English literature from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2000 and an MFA from Columbia University in 2004. He is currently completing a PhD in English literature from the University of Adelaide.
His novel, Ilustrado, won the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the 2008 Palanca Awards. In November of the same year, he won the Man Asian Literary Prize also for Ilustrado. "Ilustrado" (from a Spanish word meaning “enlightened,”) is a reference to the elite of late 19th century colonial Philippines, who were sent to Europe to be educated These expatriates returned to their homeland and helped oust their Spanish colonial masters in 1896. Syjuco criticizes the current 8.1 million Filipino expatriates — the current ilustrados — for not doing more to aid their homeland. Syjuco has repeatedly emphasized that Ilustrado, while sharing some parallels with his life, is a work of fiction. However, like the fictional Miguel Syjuco who narrates Ilustrado, Syjuco was urged to enter politics, a course he ultimately rejected. He currently lives in Montreal with his girlfriend Edith and two cats, Conrad and Laurent, and has already sold a second book to a North American publisher.

Ilustrado is an ambitious novel, and in some respects a challenging read. It plays with form and structure, and many readers are unsure what is true and what is fiction. It is a book with serious intent, but playful in style. Reviewers have expressed surprise at the control maintained by Syjuco in such an ambitious novel, expecially in view of his relative youth. He is certainly an author to watch, and signed first are available.

"It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River – taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Missing, too, is the only manuscript of his final book – meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the corrupt roots of power behind the Filipino ruling families. His student, Miguel, investigates, journeying home from a city still in shock from terrorist attacks to a country caught between reckless decay and desperate progress. To understand his mentor’s death, Miguel scours the life, charting Salvador’s trajectory via his poetry, stories, interviews, novels, and memoirs. The literary fragments become patterns become stories become epic: a generations-long saga of revolution, familial duty, political intrigue, and a people’s enduring struggle against their own worst tendencies. This is a clever, bravura, and exuberant debut novel from a new literary sensation."

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