The Walrus Reads

Seven new spring books
Illustration by Paul Kim

Ilustrado

by Miguel Syjuco, Hamish Hamilton Canada (2010)

Crispin Salvador, among the brightest lights in contemporary Filipino letters, is best known for Dahil Sa’Yo (Because of You), his epic novel about the Marcos dictatorship, which was translated into twelve languages and made him a legitimate contender for the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also holds a certain degree of fame for his crime fiction, most notably 1990’s Manila Noir. He’s celebrated, too, for his short stories, of which “Matador,” published in the March 12, 1973, edition of The New Yorker, is an important early example, and his essays, including his regular weekly Manila Times column, War & Piss. Bridging all of these is Autoplagiarist, his 2,572-page memoir/cultural history, which takes aim at his family and his country in equal measure. Despite his prodigious output, Salvador’s reputation in the Philippines will be forever troubled by his decision to work in exile from his homeland.

But perhaps more problematic is the fact that Crispin Salvador does not exist. He is the creation of Miguel Syjuco, an almost impossibly young Filipino writer who now calls Montreal home, and his life and work are the focus of Syjuco’s first novel, Ilustrado, which won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize as an unpublished manuscript. Ilustrado is many things — a skewed history of the Philippines’ past 150 years, an account of the rise and sputtering decline of a family, a sharply fanged indictment of the country’s lazy, coke-fuelled ruling-class youth — but above all it operates as an enormously accomplished bricolage memoir of the efforts of our narrator, also named Miguel Syjuco, to piece together the life of Salvador, his recently deceased teacher and mentor, by sifting through Salvador’s writing and personal history. Presenting itself in myriad fragments, the book drifts in and out of Salvador’s work, including portions of essays, novels, interviews, short stories, articles, poems, and jokes, while exploring Miguel’s biography-in-progress, his life in New York, and his investigations upon returning to the Philippines.

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While it sounds — and is — conceptually ambitious, at its core the novel is interested in a very traditional question: how does one measure a life? And, more specifically, how does one measure a life once one accounts for the fact that any particular life is but a single thread at a single moment in the ungainly fabric of any particular society, sustaining and sustained by its unknown brethren, the fabric itself stretching ever thinner as nations exist in increasingly diffuse diasporic realities?

Ian McEwan prefaced his 2005 novel, Saturday, with a quote to this effect from Saul Bellow’s Herzog : “Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition.” But whereas McEwan seeks to untangle the knot of a contemporary identity by turning inward — the story operates within its protagonist, Henry Perowne, and his rarefied London privilege — Syjuco’s structural acrobatics make a convincing argument that the best way of exploring such impossibly complicated terrain is through an appropriately complex framework. The book’s formal innovation, its ceaseless flood of snippets and quotes and chapters and isolated scenes, is incredibly successful because it allows for contradiction, for complication, for the unknown — it allows, in other words, a life to be like life.

And while Ilustrado’s sprawling pastiche proves a satisfying means of existential contemplation, it also mimics how we consume literature itself. In dredging up Salvador’s best bons mots, his most charmingly hackneyed noir patter, his most vicious vitriol, the novel mirrors how our consciousnesses interact with the legacies of others’ consciousnesses — with the books, essays, and poems we read. We rarely recall these works in their entirety, but their best moments live with us in phrases we can’t shake, or images lodged in our minds. (While I’m forever hazy on Lolita’s meandering final third, I’ll never forget the freak accident — “(picnic, lightning)” — by which Humbert Humbert’s “very photogenic mother” is said to have died.) Thus Syjuco’s formalist play is doubly satisfying, an almost paradoxical encapsulation of contemporary existence. It gives us a mode of understanding not only the way we live, but also the way we live within art that mirrors our lives.

In his introduction to the book, the narrator incarnation of Miguel Syjuco recalls Crispin Salvador’s first true novel, The Enlightened, which “won prizes before it was published but could not live up to the fairy-tale hype.” It’s the sort of joke this book loves, one that echoes within chambers it has built, one that makes a sly yet somehow heartbreaking nod toward the reader — “enlightened” is the literal translation of “Ilustrado.” Fortunately, Syjuco’s exceptional novel exceeds its heightened expectations, serving notice that a brilliant new talent has arrived, somehow fully formed.
— Jared Bland


Illustration by Paul Kim

The Year of Finding Memory

by Judy Fong Bates, Random House Canada (2010)

Judy Fong Bates’s new memoir begins with a dramatic ending: the revelation that her elderly father hanged himself in the basement of his home in 1972, when Bates was in her early 20s. The event has haunted her since; it was an uncharacteristically assertive act for a man cowed by the deprivations of his early life in China and the racism he experienced as a laundryman in rural Ontario. What’s more, his suicide was considered too shameful to discuss in Bates’s traditional family, which further shrouded both his life and his death in mystery.

In 2006 and 2007, Bates, a happily married grandmother and author of the acclaimed 2004 novel Midnight at the Dragon Café, took two fact-finding missions to China: the first with an entourage of half-siblings and other assorted relations; the second alone with her good-natured Caucasian husband, whose six-foot-plus frame and fair skin cause a rock star sensation in the small villages they visit. Bates is “looking for the China that had belonged to my parents.” But as she tours the countryside, she discovers a nation transformed — in many cases despoiled — by the Japanese occupation, the Cultural Revolution, and, most recently, rampant industrialization.

Bates is a fine observer of details. She meticulously catalogues the landscape and architecture of her birthplace (she emigrated as a young child), as well as the elaborate meals her relatives serve. And yet, even as family secrets are slowly bared, the story never gains an emotional purchase. Her parents remain ciphers, and Bates’s own occasionally canned reactions make her equally, maddeningly, elusive.

Much more illuminating are her unflinching flashbacks to her childhood, where her parents’ misery in their adopted country is recounted with vivid power. Recalling their loneliness, their poverty, and their humiliations at the hands of xenophobic locals, Bates writes, “I felt their helplessness in the marrow of my bones and I hated it.” In the end, though, she remains “a good Chinese daughter” who wants to honour her parents’ memory. If only that laudable, adult compassion came with the compelling insight she brings to her own childhood.
— Rachel Giese


Illustration by Paul Kim

Girl Crazy

by Russell Smith, HarperCollins Canada (2010)

Justin Harrison, the protagonist of Russell Smith’s latest novel, is a thirty-two-year-old contract professor in the communications studies department at Constitution College Polytechnical Institute in suburban Toronto, where he teaches classes with names like Business Communications and E-Mail Etiquette. When he isn’t teaching, Justin attends meetings run by his boss, Mike, a Type A personality who drives a red Thunderbird with a vanity plate that reads WNDRKD; and wrangles with “Annette the PR idiot,” who is involved with the college’s fundraising campaign (its “capital initiative”) and who uses terms like “optics” and “brand” and “grassroots level.” At night, Justin occupies himself by playing a first-person shooter video game called Sandstorm III (Sheik Assassin); engaging in torturous phone conversations with his ex-girlfriend, Genevieve; and masturbating.

Into this life of quiet desperation comes Jenna, a twenty-year-old woman who fulfills Justin’s every sexual fantasy in exchange for him supplying her friend Deenie with sleeping pills, which he purchases over the Internet. Justin’s first encounter with Jenna is as a good Samaritan, but he is instantly attracted to her. That attraction quickly turns into lust and obsession, and Justin’s frenzied sexual odyssey blinds him to the warning signs in Jenna’s life, such as a hulking thug named Tee who begins to stalk the teacher.

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1 comment(s)

AnonymousJanuary 06, 2011 12:41 EST

Only one book from a small literary press!! The Walrus needs to look past the celebrity names and big Toronto publishers to discover, review, and celebrate innovation and daring in Canadian literature.

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