Friday, February 3, 2017

Finished At Last


This book turned out to be my reading year nemesis in 2016. I'd hoped to finish strong, but I bogged down at the end, thanks to my difficulty with this novel.

Ilustrado is my first Man Asian Prize winner and I'm reserving judgment until I read a few more of the winners. However, my initial impression echoes my reaction to the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature winners I've read so far: I wanted to broaden my reading horizons, and I've done that, but it hasn't been successful. (You can read a little more about that here, if you're so inclined.) I think it's entirely my fault that I don't "get" these books, which are recognized by others as being excellent novels. I blame my weak and narrow knowledge of the countries and cultures involved; that's a good enough reason to think about coming out of my comfort zone in the future. And now, how about a review?

This novel begins with the discovery of the body of poet and literary light Crispin Salvador in the Hudson River. There's some question whether his death was murder or suicide, as Crispin's student and acquaintance Miguel--it's rather a stretch to call him a friend, because he seems present in Crispin's life more by default than by design--tries to track down a missing manuscript and construct a biography-in-progress. The unknown contents of the manuscript, rumored to be an expose of the corruption of Filipino aristocracy, provide a possible motive.

The murder angle soon dissipates, however, in this novel that flips constantly, reminding me of the various snippets one views while channel surfing. (I know I'm onto something here, because there's even a scene where Miguel channel surfs and reports what he sees.) Miguel narrates his own story of his journey to Manila, including such personal details as the painful end of his relationship with Madison in New York, the possibility of another with Sadie, a girl he meets by chance in Manila, his own family history, and verbatim accounts of interviews he conducts as part of his research.

Sometimes this narration is in first person. Sometimes it's in third person--or maybe that other Miguel traveling through Manila is supposed to be someone else. The narration is constantly interrupted by excerpts from Crispin's novels and political writings, snippets from newspaper reports, political blogs, and message boards (supposedly verbatim, including the spam), interview transcripts, conversations that read like a play script, and samples from the biography-in-progress--all in different typefaces. Some of the writing is excellent; I particularly liked one of Crispin's efforts, a sort of fantasy thriller a la Jurassic Park, in which a boy and a girl are cornered by some fierce toothy creatures. It thoroughly caught my attention for the few paragraphs it lasted.

Eventually all this mishmash coalesces into a family saga and dovetails sharply into a meditation on the role of the artist and the artist's bond with the audience, in which the past and the present and the various narratives meet at the exact moment that black words are typed onto the white page. It's a very nice moment, but it was a long time coming.

Excerpt:

And I forgave him [his lack of involvement in politics]. Even if I thought he was running away from something by living abroad. Maybe I excused him because he was a man who'd already made many a stand, perhaps one too many, and it was now the era for people like me to step up. Or maybe I admired him because he had graduated into a different role. When Crispin spoke about his writing, he wielded adroitly a life sharpened by learning, defending a ferocious belief that merely being in touch with today is limited, even juvenile--in the way that this morning's newspaper is revealed as tonight's fish-and-chips wrapping when works like One Hundred Years of Solitude . . . are picked off the shelf. A man with battered hands is shown to be a craftsman only when he puts them to work.

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