By Miguel Syjuco

Probably the most common advice given to first-time novelists is to not try to do too much. One can’t help but be reminded of this when reading Ilustrado, the ambitious (and precociously successful – it won the Man Asian Literary Prize while still in the form of an unpublished draft manuscript) debut by Philippine-born, now Montreal resident Miguel Syjuco.

The novel presents itself in the best postmodernist, self-referential way as an investigation by a young writer named Miguel Syjuco (get it?) into the death of his mentor Crispin Salvador, a semi-famous Filipino author who had been living in New York City. It’s more complicated than this, but the story is of less importance than the form. Ilustrado is a collage of material, including extracts from Salvador’s various books, first- and third-person accounts (the two are often at variance) of Miguel’s return to the Philippines in search of a missing Salvador manuscript, blog entries (complete with spam comments), a biography-in-progress of Salvador by Miguel, and a jumble of other odds and ends.

These fragments, most of them only a page or two long and presented in a variety of typefaces, aren’t meant to cohere. Disjunction and indeterminacy are Syjuco’s aim. Some parts, like the series of lame gags involving a character called Erning, don’t appear to have any point at all. Others, like the running commentary on contemporary Philippine politics, feel like they belong in another book.

The loss of focus makes it hard to understand what Ilustrado is supposed to be about. This confusion is compounded by the shifts in voice and tone – at times earnest, at others crude, pretentious, or self-mocking. While Miguel’s first-person narrative can be smart, tender, and engaging, a lot of the rest of the book is obvious and gimmicky. The trick ending, in particular, wherein the story swallows its own tail, registers more as a lack of confidence than literary flair.

For all its unevenness, there’s no denying Ilustrado is a good first novel. It’s just that the emphasis still has to go on those last two words.

Review first published in the Toronto Star July 11, 2010.