An ambitious debut novel, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, introduces an author of limitless promise.
This isn’t the only recent debut that finds the author using his own name and drawing from his own life for his protagonist, but it dazzles as brightly as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002). The framing is simple, though nothing is clear, and everything encompassed remains open to question. It begins with the death of Crispin Salvador, a writer once revered in his native Philipines, but whose literary legacy has become far more controversial since he exiled himself to Manhattan. After the discovery of his dead body floating in the Hudson River, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the initial report lists suicide as the cause of death, though his protégé, the student writer Miguel Syjuco, suspects murder. For more than two decades, Salvador had been working on a manuscript that was to be his life’s crowning achievement, one that would explore and illuminate the corruption and scandal at the heart of his native country for more than a century. The young narrator returns to the Manila that both writers had left, hoping to discover both the location of the manuscript and the truth about his mentor. He tells his story in both the first and third persons, mixing fictional reality with dreams and excerpts from both Salvador’s work and his own work-in-progress biography of Salvador. The novel ultimately blurs the distinctions between life and art, and between protégé and mentor, within what it calls “the ‘arbitrary scrim’ between fiction and nonfiction.” As it details generations of Filipino history through the lives of the two writers, it additionally employs techniques as contemporary as blogs and e-mail exchanges. Ultimately, the global interconnections know no boundaries: “When a butterfly flapped its wings in Chile, a child soldier killed for the first time in Chad, a sale was made on Amazon.com, and a book arrived in two days to divulge the urgencies outside our lives.”
First novels rarely show such reach and depth.