by Miguel Syjuco
Pan MacMillan HK$104
Miguel Syjuco's debut novel won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. It tells several stories, but begins with that of Crispin Salvador, who starts by ending: he drowns in New York. It is 2002, and Salvador is a Filipino writer-in-exile who remains tethered to his homeland, even if this is merely to abuse it. Rewinding a few months we learn that another Filipino writer called Miguel Syjuco (some relation) is writing Salvador's biography: Eight Lives Lived. It all goes a bit Philip Roth: the real and unreal Syjucos are eerily similar. Will the unreal one finish his book? Does this mean discovering how exactly Salvador died: suicide, murder or plain accident? Both Syjucos narrate the story through different voices. This is occasionally slightly confusing as not all the voices are quite different enough. But the main narrative is enthralling and vivid. Syjuco and Salvador's upbringing in Manila is brilliantly realised: their families, their disaffection with their homeland and their eventual exile. Those who stay behind call them traitors, but they are mired in a corrupt and corrupting society. Illustrado is an impressive novel, whether first or otherwise. I look forward to the follow-up.