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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