We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Presented in snippets of newspaper clippings, passages from novels, and several simultaneous narratives, Ilustrado recounts the life and mysterious death of Filipino literary lion Crispin Salvador and the hard work of his devoted epigone, the author, in researching his biography. A fragmentary novel, Ilustrado suffers from the defects natural to its disconnected form, it surpasses these flaws and is invaluable for its luminous portrait of contemporary Filipine life. That rendering is often darkly hilarious, particularly as it follows the adventures of one Wigoberto Lakandula, a security guard whose girlfriend, maid to a wealthy Filipino-Chinese family, is forced by her employers to drink bleach for allowing their son to drown in the bathtub. The maid perishes, the couple is put on trial and gets off scot-free. Wigoberto goes ballistic and, in a moment of high drama, takes the couple hostage. Thus commences a standoff with a SWAT team that mesmerizes the nation, monopolizes the press and TV, and ultimately elevates Wigoberto Lakandula to a Filipino national icon. This tale weaves throughout the book and indeed is one of the threads tying it together. A good thing, too—it helps Syjucho skirt the perils of his typically experimental approach, perils warned of decades ago by E. M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel, in which he observed that every novel, even a modernist one, must have some story. Totally destroying it and the element of time upon which it relies is a Pyrrhic victory for the writer. “[Gertrude Stein] has smashed up and pulverized her clock…and she has done this not from naughtiness but from a noble motive: she has hoped to emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time…She fails, because as soon as fiction is completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all. She wants to abolish this whole aspect of the story, this sequence in chronology.” Happily Syjuco steps well back from this abyss. There is sufficient sequence, and many themes help Ilustrado cohere. One is fatherhood. Both Salvador and his biographer are failed fathers, conditions around which many of their musings, searches, activities, and attempted heroics revolve. “I entered fatherhood with only the best intentions. I think that in the beginning I did things right. As best a boy of seventeen could. Every teenager is both a hero and a failure. When we become adults, we have to choose where in the middle we’ll be. I guess I’ve chosen.” The honest meditations of this regularly appearing narrator unite this book that doubles back on itself so startlingly at the end. Ilustrado is carefully strung together, a puzzle in which many pieces are self-sufficient and self-enclosed—but one whose story transcends its disjointed form.