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by Miguel Syjuco

In 2008, Montreal author Miguel Syjuco’s debut novel nabbed both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Palanca Award (the Pulitzer of the Philippines) – quite a coup for a first book. Given the noisy buzz that the prestigious accolades generated, and the two-year wait for the book to appear in Canada, one might easily wonder whether it can live up to the hype. Ilustrado, however, exceeds all expectations.

When the body of Crispin Salvador – “the Panther of Philippine Letters” – is found bobbing in New York City’s Hudson River, Miguel, Salvador’s biographer, is convinced of foul play. After all, Salvador, who spent the last several years exiled in New York after a fall from grace with critics in his homeland, was on the cusp of completing the masterpiece that promised to revive his reputation and “return him to the pantheon.” Now, the manuscript, which was meant to reveal the unscrupulous malevolence of the Filipino ruling class, has gone missing. And so Miguel books a flight to Manila in search of answers.

But Ilustrado is not a crime novel. It’s an illustrious, evocative, intricate story that chronicles 150 years of Philippine history by employing a wide array of narrative mechanisms: newspaper clippings, blog rants, excerpts from Salvador’s colossal body of work, interview snippets, extracts from Miguel’s biography, and, of course, our protagonist’s own tumultuous journey through the “tapestry of disorder” he confronts in Manila. Miguel’s pursuit of Salvador’s manuscript is shaded by various “fingers of darkness” – his own familial disenfranchisement, a painful secret, the chaos of new love, and the random bombings and desperate protests that mark Manila’s socio-political unrest.

Miguel’s narration is often unreliable. There are out-and-out lies: “That part about my seatmate in the plane … didn’t happen exactly as I recounted.… From this point on, I should promise to tell the truth.” There are omissions: “I forgot to mention what happened last night…” And there are reluctant confessions: “I don’t know why I’m admitting this.” These levels of reliability brilliantly challenge notions of authenticity and make the book’s final twist all the more fascinating.

Like Salvador’s own writing, Syjuco’s “metal slugs of type bang like bullets into the white sky, leaving black letters suspended.” Ilustrado is a staggering, indelible debut.