Book Review: Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
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Ilustrado is an award-winning Filipino novel in the English language published in 2010. Its author, Miguel Syjuco, is a 38-year-old Manila-born-and-bred graduate of Ateneo de Manila University and Columbia University and is currently residing in Montreal, Quebec. With Ilustrado, Syjuco has pulled off a remarkable debut — remarkable even without considering that it has won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize along with the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the Palanca Awards 2008. Among other notable mentions, finalist placings and prizes, it has also been translated into one shy of a dozen languages.
Even without all that, Syjuco has made a strong impact from the start with his unapologetic eloquence and evident talent as an astute observer of the human condition — particularly that of the Filipino psyche, whose heart is inextricably born from the heart of Manila. Ilustrado is a Spanish term that means “the enlightened” and was used to describe the well-to-do Filipino educated class during the Spanish colonial period in the late 19th century. In this story, the character in focus who best illustrates this class is dead before the narrative opens.
We wander into the story through the eyes of a young Filipino journalist based in New York, also named Miguel Syjuco. This partly-fictional Miguel is writing the biography of his late mentor, Salvador Crispin, the infamous, flamboyant and enigmatic “man of letters” who is introduced in the prologue as a lifeless body found floating face down and spread-eagled in the Hudson river. His is a case of presumed suicide, but Miguel is not convinced, though everyone else differs in opinion. At one point, a Filipino Muslim literati character says, As Salvador’s “last remaining friend” who has grown close to him shortly before his death, Miguel sets out to investigate his mentor’s life and find the missing manuscript of The Bridges Ablaze, a mysterious, conspiratorial memoir Salvador has been working on up to the moment of his equally mysterious death. This is a memoir that promised to “tell all” and to rescue Salvador from the clutches of obscurity, a much-rumored book and that willfully provoked the “powers that be” back in the Philippines, and a story that was to be the self-exiled Salvador’s redemption.
We follow Syjuco in his journey from New York back to Manila to uncover both the missing manuscript and the clues to the story of Salvador’s life and death, and as he does, we get an abject profile of the Philippines as a “society caught between reckless decay and hopeful progress.” Charles Foran of The Globe and Mail puts it well: “The biographer’s journey back to the Philippines, ostensibly in search of both the manuscript and a better understanding of its author, opens onto a glancing portrait of a country, a society, in the grips of a failing traditional self-narrative.” As Foran also notes, “Young people in Syjuco’s Manila freely mix the local word “pare”, the American “dude” and “fligga” (Filipino nigga)” — a kind of parlance that is telling of a national identity synthesized from pieces of other identities.
Ilustrado seems to strike two nerves at once, if not more, with all its flagrant confidence and verve mixed with bouts of self-loathing, highfalutin words and noir themes. Much like journalism — weaving together the factual and the invented to present a reality — the story is interspersed with scattergun excerpts of interview transcripts and blog posts, published novels and the character’s own in-the-making manuscripts, recounts of the author’s nightmarish dreams and bizarre deja-vu third-person narratives, Filipino jokes, and private correspondences. In the end, what you have is several story-threads running parallel throughout the main plot; a mosaic that gives you a sense of artful wholeness and yet self-fragmentation; the picture of a young tragicomic life already on the verge of being jaded; a portrait of a nation in a sense of identity crisis, glibly painted after skimming 150 years of Philippine history and four generations of family drama at a glance, even though the big picture as a whole is still just a little out of reach. According to a Washington Post review, Ilustrado is “more a novel of wonderful parts than a completely successful whole.”
Nonetheless, Syjuco manages to punctuate this already rich overkill with profound philosophical insights. Recounts of Salvador’s dominated conversations are at once humorous, tormented, shrewd and inspiring. Salvador himself is a strange, gracelessly graceful, intriguing caricature of a self-exiled Filipino fighting for a distorted sense of national identity, while many condemn him as ”not quite genuinely Filipino.” Salvador Crispin’s very life seems to embody the point Aristotle meant when he said, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” Crispin did, said, and was a lot of things, and from the very beginning, was set up to be crucified.
Something about the ending of this ambitious novel felt like a misfire, but that must owe to the fact that the expectations were more of a grandstand finish than a turn-around delivered in relative climactic quiet. While arguably considered a gem of “cultural heritage fiction” in Filipino English-language literature, enough so to collect a laundry list of awards and notable mentions, Syjuco’s Ilustrado should not be seen as representative of the genre. Its winning attributes, to the right kind of reader, can be turn-offs to another kind.
With that said, this is an overall good book, even despite its more-than-occasional elusiveness and incomprehensibility. If Stephen King is to be trusted on this, good books do not give up all their secrets at once. This title merits a second reading, if not a third.