(A Book Review of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado)
Ilustrado is the ambitious and exceptionally complicated debut novel by Miguel Syjuco that won the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel Category in 2008 and the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize later that year when it was still in manuscript form.
Since news of his prodigious success came out, I can’t help but feel elated, for his triumph is as much ours; his breakthrough is a vindication of sorts on our much neglected and often beleaguered local literary scene as it opens the door to global fiction and foreign audience. And indeed we have arrived. By this sheer fact alone I became in an instant Syjuco’s fan and having to wait for two years just to read his novel doesn’t diminish it one bit, for Ilustrado lives up to the hype and deliver the goods.
The novel centers on the great Filipino author, Crispin Salvador, fished out of the Hudson in New York in 2001. Prolific, celebrated, and despised Crispin, dubbed as “The Panther of Philippine Letters,” was the shining star in the West between the ‘70s and ‘80s before he fell into obscurity. He was last working on a book that was to catapult him back to fame, the controversial yet up to now unseen “The Bridges Ablaze,” exposing the corrupt roots of many powerful Filipino families. The strange circumstances of Crispin’s death leads his young student and protégé, the eponymous protagonist Miguel Syjuco, to investigate whether or not it was indeed suicide as had been reported by the press and the police.
Miguel suspects that Crispin’s death is linked to his final novel, which had mysteriously disappeared. He returns to the Philippines to uncover more things about his mentor, but more importantly, Miguel discovers a lot about himself and what it means to be a young writer who’s left the country.
Part mystery thriller, part historical fiction, part political novel, Ilustrado spans the last 150 years chronicling the Philippines and its people with lush prose, a deluge of quotable lines, hilarious Pinoy-isms and meta fictional meditations on the craft of writing and Filipino Diaspora.
What is truly notable about the novel is the depiction of the dead author Crispin through a meticulous reconstruction of his lifework — a technique called literary bricolage — with morsels in the book excerpts, memoir, interviews, essays, and poetry inserted in between the main narrative thread. This not only rendered the character with three dimensional feel but also gave Syjuco (the author) a leeway to explore, with its non-linear structure, the Philippine’s history as it encompasses the late 1800s during the time of the ilustrados, the Philippine Assembly under the US, the Huk rebellion, the Marcos regime up to Y2K. It staggers the mind that Crispin’s pseudo-bibliographies was all made up by Syjuco himself including a Wikipedia entry and its amusing to know that when he pitched his manuscript to an agent in New York it was declined because it heavily quoted from another author’s works. And Syjuco taking this as a cue realized he’s up to something here.
The question of what is fact and what is fiction lies at the heart of Ilustrado. Earlier in the book, the protagonist mentions of an ersatz Oyster Perpetual that he wears, virtually indistinguishable from a genuine Rolex watch. This serves as the book’s motif and as the novel progresses it increasingly blurs the line of what is real and what is not. Perhaps most noticeable of this is how the author and the protagonist not only happen to share the same name but also some parallelisms from the school they’ve attended up to some degree of familial background.
This theme perfectly reflects the intricate and ingenious structure of the book as it brings together passages from books, articles, blog entries with comments, TV, chismis, Boy Bastos jokes, real history and people, overheard conversations, fabricated footnotes and the narrator’s increasingly phantasmagoric dreams. A disorderly design for our congested and bloated information age for in this present era isn’t the truth fragmented?
As others who have read the novel are bound to complain, the novel doesn’t make sense, that so much is happening, there’s really nothing happening at all. It’s so magulo. Yet when you view and take it in its entirety when you read the novel, all these different things happening in the periphery makes it whole. And this is what’s fascinating and absorbing about it: in every measure it is a true Filipino novel for in our everyday chaos thrives our order.
Reading Ilustrado is a celebration of all things Filipino. For who but us will relish and recognize reading the contained historical references, personalities, analogues, innuendos and “in-jokes”? For all we know the Lupases suspiciously sound like the Lopezes or the Changcos, the Cuangcos, the thinly veiled Reverend Martin seems to be targeted at a charismatic lay leader and the actor turned President Fernando Estregan might refer to you-know-who. Go figure. Yet in all its guises the novel is unapologetic about its Filipino roots and I gave it high praise as it shunned the often hackneyed exoticism some Filipino writers resort to.
In its last pages the book gathers strength and seems to be going to different trajectories. It ends indeterminately, or possibly, in considerable contradicting ways. Then it abruptly stops, sending us to the final, ultimately surprising revelation: an ambivalent yet powerful ending that clarifies, adds a resonance to the supposed disorder skillfully rendered earlier. The book’s conclusion, enough to satisfy the most patient of readers, is a singular achievement in and of itself.
The term “ilustrado” which also means “enlightened,” refers to the Filipinos educated in Europe during the Spanish colonization. They would later foment the revolution of 1886 using the things they’ve learned against their oppressors.
They are the forebears of today’s estimated 100, 000 strong balikbayans, and the country is beckoning them not to wage another war but to start the revolution to renewal armed with the experiences they’ve learned from other countries.
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
(Trade Paperback, 2010 Philippine First Edition)
Started: July 6, 2010
Finished: July 16, 2010