Ilustrado opens with Crispin Salvador, lion of Philippine letters, dead in the Hudson River. His young acolyte, Miguel, sets out to investigate the author's suspicious death and the strange disappearance of an unfinished manuscript - a work that had been planned not just to return the once-great author to fame but to expose the corruption behind the rich families who have ruled the Philippines for generations.
To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, charting Salvador's trajectory via his poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The literary fragments become patterns become stories become epic: a family saga of four generations tracing 150 years of Philippine history forged under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Filipinos themselves.
Finally, we are surprised to learn that this story belongs to young Miguel as much as to his lost mentor, and we are treated to an unhindered view of a society caught between reckless decay and hopeful progress.
In the shifting terrain of this remarkably ambitious and daring first novel, Miguel Syjuco explores fatherhood, regret, revolution, and the mysteries of lives lived and abandoned.
After 15 Golden Earphones Awards and over 200 audiobook narrations, it's perfectly clear that William Dufris knows how to tell a tale. His primary virtue lies in an uncanny ability to transition between tones and characters within a single breath. This is no easy feat for either a voice or an attention span, and it is this unusual strength in voice work that Dufris places in the service of Miguel Syjuco's debut novel about all things Filipino.
On the surface, this is a work of fiction about a man who is writing the biography of his mentor. But the man is Syjuco himself, and therefore not all is fiction. The mentor is not a real person, but the fictions of his singular literary life are intertwined with the real history of his native land. Like all biographies, as the writing progresses, it tells at least as much about the biographer as it tells about his subject. Drifting back and forth between Manila and New York, Dufris hop-scotches from the mentor's journals to the biographer's interviews, from the mentor's book excerpts to the biographer's book notes, and from the history of a struggling nation to the contemporary troubles of a struggling biographer. Rich in family gossip and political side-stepping, the novel keeps a rare balance between education and entertainment.
As the life stories of Miguel Syjuco, Crispin Salvador, and the Philippines are revealed fragment by hard-won fragment, Dufris turns on a dime from bitterness to hilarity, from stereotype to serious humanity, from revolution to subjugation, elucidating social peculiarities and moral complexities that touch our ambivalent postcolonial nerve. The mystery plot of Crispin Salvador's death is nothing compared to the structural magic of Syjuco's novel, deftly rendered by William Dufris with all the bounce and tumble it takes to chart the feel of four generations worth of real and imagined Filipino history. Megan Volpert
“Dizzying and ambitious.... A satisfying, meaningful story.” (Publishers Weekly)
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Challenging but interesting listen
Not what I expected but a great listen
- William A Meeks