Monday, September 13, 2010

Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado

Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado, which won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, has been widely acclaimed. Charles Foran's review in the Globe and Mail convinced me to read it, and I must agree with much of what Foran says about its exuberance, its expansion of the novel's possibilities, its exploration of identities national and global, its folding together of the historical and the fictional.

I admire the novel's formal experimentation and play as well as the work it does in reconstructing the geographies of our global imaginaries, insisting on a webbing that pulls the globe tighter than ever those pink-stained maps taught me way back when. And there are occasional aperçus on relationships, on privilege, on irony that I enjoyed. Overall, however, I found I really could not care about either central character, the young narrator or the older erstwhile literary mentor whose biography he is trying to piece together. I'm not sure whether this is a gender or a generational gap at play, but whereas Junot Diaz Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao entertained and engaged and horrified me while it placed Dominican history under its lens, I experienced Ilustrado as a should-read, forcing myself to pick it up and continue, in order to cross it off my list and get onto the next book.

But I'm definitely in the minority on this one, if the critics are a fair indication. And I hope my reading wouldn't dissuade you from your own -- I'd love to be given a reason to take a second look, so if you disagree with me, let's hear it!


  1. Oh dear, I'm never going to keep up with all these books! I'm reading Freedom (Franzen) at the moment, and my 'to read' list seems to be growing at a terrifying rate ... Interested to read your review here and your response to the central characters. For me, if the central identification (which doesn't have to be postive, of course) isn't there, the book has failed in a fundamental way.

  2. Tiffany, I sympathize -- I feel overwhelmed by the numbers on my must-read list. Franzen's is definitely on there, move higher with each review I read -- I'll be curious to see if you also identify it as a must.
    While character is not always central for me, when I have to spend so much time looking at the world through a narrator's eyes, I have to feel some engagement (even if, as you suggest, that doesn't necessarily have to be positive). Sometimes landscape can act as a character, sometimes the formal structure is so interesting I don't miss character, but I didn't find enough compensations here to ever want to re-read (a litmus test for me).

  3. My reading list keeps growing and growing, although admittedly Ilustrado was already on it, as was Freedom, but now I've added the book from your last post. I'll admit that, having read your impressions of Ilustrado, I am a little cautious. I remember my strong negative reaction to the central character in Zafron's The Angel's Game and how difficult I found that book. I am very likely to forgive much in a book for a character I can get involved it, and the writing has to make up for much without that character association.

    I shall give it a try though. I tend to have reservations about Franzen too and I am still eager to give the new novel a try even though I felt like one of the few dissenters it terms of The Corrections. I suppose I am waiting for the author to live up to the hype. Or maybe I am hoping I will figure out what it is that I am missing.

  4. Mardel: We should have organized a Franzen read-a-long! Tiffany's reading it, as you can see above. Don't suppose I'll get to it much before Christmas, but it does sound as if it's going to be an important one. I did enjoy The Corrections, but I must admit that I'm not a fan of satire, however effective I admit it can be. While it often amuses and entertains me, if it deliberately keeps me from engaging with characters, if it remains too arm's length, I'm likely to weary of it before too long.