Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

'Ilustrado' was the name given to Filipino intellectuals during that country's Spanish Colonial period.

The premise behind Miguel Syjuco’s award-winning novel Ilustrado appears promising at the outset.  The body of Crispin Salvador, a legendary Filipino author, is found floating in the Hudson River.  The manuscript of his latest (and last) novel, a scathing roman à clef inditing the rich & powerful of Filipino society has disappeared.

Enter Crispin’s protegé:  an aspiring author and troubled young man who doesn’t buy the official report that his mentor committed suicide.  He travels back to the Philippines for answers. He’s formed a half-baked plan to become Crispin’s biographer.  The missing manuscript holds the key… to something.

It never becomes clear exactly what the missing manuscript holds the key to, and so the plot is lost in a cacophony of literary tricks that follow.  It’ll be quicker if I just list them –

  • Syjuco names his protagonist after himself.
  • The story is told using traditional narrative.  And then, seemingly inexplicably, a scene is revised and repeated from a different narrative point of view.
  • Filipino blog entries are inserted into the story, complete with multiple comments.
  • In one section our protagonist (who, by the way, is sporadically referred to as “our protagonist” throughout the novel) channel surfs and the reader is treated to flashes of Filipino television programming.
  • A series of jokes, so racist they made my skin crawl, are scattered throughout.
  • There are dream sequences
  • Syjuco (the author) even went so far as to create a fake Wikipedia entry & Facebook page for the fictional Crispin Salvador

Miguel Syjuco (our protagonist) isn’t a particularly sympathetic character or a reliable one (add unreliable narrator to the above list).  He quickly emerges as a spoiled rich kid, estranged from his family, who poses as a struggling writer between lines of coke.  His research into Crispin’s past and hunt for Crispin’s lost novel seem opportunistic at best.  While it may not be part of the original plan, this trip back to the Philippines will forcehim to confront himself, his family and his Filipino heritage.  None of which look good under close scrutiny.

Ilustrado is as much about Miguel as it is about Crispin.  The similarities between the two men only highlight their differences. There is a certain nostalgia for Crispin’s generation and the Philippines’ revolutionary past.  There is an obvious disgust with the present.  The novel attempts to relay some of that history, as well as the current events, but if you’re not already familiar it’s almost impossible to follow the timeline. In fact, I believe there is a deliberate blurring of time, happenings and even characters.  The obscuration makes sense when the author reveals a plot twist – very Ian McEwan – in the final pages. It would have been shocking had I not been too mentally exhausted to appreciate the house of cards Syjuco constructed for his readers.

Ilustrado contains some excellent writing.  Miguel Syjuco (the author) handles each of the individual components well and obviously has put a great deal of planning into his novel’s construction.  Parts are entertaining, in the way that novelties are entertaining.  He even succeeds in establishing a sense of the national culture:  particularly that of the capital city, Manila.  But ultimately, there is too much going on at once.  “The whole is not equal to the sum of its parts”.  In the case of Ilustrado, I’d go so far as to say that the sum of those parts obscures the whole.

Publisher:  Picador, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 312 57293 8

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9 thoughts on “Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

  1. Huh. This sounds interesting but not fantastic. I admit that I dislike blog posts and comments and the like in books because they often distract me from a story, but it one way it is a merging of mediums and the wikipedia entry is kind of a clever tie in. It sounds like too much was going on and it just didn’t work well though. Also, the racist jokes and the fact that you need in-depth knowledge to make sense of it all. Too bad!

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    1. I should have taken a moment to better describe the jokes. From reviews of the novel on Goodreads I get the impression that these jokes are as familiar to most Filipinos as blond and Polish jokes would be to most Americans. But does that make it better or worse? I’m not sure.

      Now that I’ve finished it, I can step back to admire the author’s technique… and to be honest I’ve become a bit torn over the whole thing. Is it Syjuco’s responsibility to cater to my ignorance of the history & culture of the Philippines? I’ve read novels by American and British authors who reference historical events without explanations – but because I share their background it didn’t bother me. Is it fair to hold a Filipino author to a different standard?

      I still hold that the book is too cluttered by & concerned with stylistic tricks. But it does raise the question of who is Syjuco’s intended audience – English-speaking Westerners or English-speaking Filipinos? (Those who speak Tagalong having already been eliminated for obvious reasons).

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      1. I suppose that makes a lot of sense. Writing to a different audience is a great thing to do to, especially if he is writing to his own countrywomen and men. But if I don’t have the knowledge I might still avoid it now until I do 🙂 So not that it is a bad thing in general, it is good in general just bad for me specifically right now. And yeah, I still don’t think I’d be a fan of the jokes 😛 heh

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  2. What a great review. I know how much this book frustrated you, so I am glad to see you made it all the way through and were able to write such a well thought out novel. While in theory it sounds like something I would want to read – I am content to remember the pain it put you through 🙂

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  3. hahaah.. I didnt mean a well thought out “novel” ….obviously I meant “review”. I shouldn’t comment on blog posts until I’ve been awake longer. Geesh!

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    1. You crack me up! It’s really not a bad novel, and obviously a lot of people enjoyed it (at least enough for it to win awards). Interestingly, a blogger I admire – Kevin from Canada – abandoned it three-quarters through because he “found both the story and prose too frustrating to continue”. I take comfort from that.

      I’d pass it on, but I’ve already promised the book to a friend. She’s Filipino and I’m hoping she’ll be able to compensate for my deficiencies as a reader. If you want next, just let me know.

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  4. That’s an interesting question about the historical context. I’m often frustrated by novels that reference history with the assumption that the reader knows what’s being discussed, but having an explanation embedded in the story can often take away from its impact. And so I say: footnotes! The perfect solution.

    Illustrado seems like one of those overly clever, very interesting books that aren’t exactly enjoyable to read. Your comment that the tricks obscure the overall book is well taken – I shall have to seriously consider whether or not to both with this one.

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    1. Hi Biblibio! Sorry for my delayed reply. Footnotes would have been genius! I wish I’d thought of it.

      I always feel a little bad when people say they’ll pass on a book based on my recommendation. But Illustrado is a tough read, no two ways about it. The author is obviously talented, though, so perhaps his next attempt will live up to the promise of this first novel.

      One thing that’s been puzzling me, though… how do you win an award for a book still in manuscript?

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