The premise of the entire novel was intriguing: a very famous Filipino writer by the name of Crispin Salvador was found dead, his corpse floating in the Hudson river. The manuscript of his final book The Bridges Ablaze is gone as well, a book that will expose the crimes of many ruling corrupted political families in the Philippines. His apprentice Miguel, an aspiring writer, sets out to Manila to investigate and untangle the mysteries surrounding the Salvador family, going back as far as three generations. In doing so, Miguel has to re-visit his mentor’s poetry, interviews, novels, polemics and memoirs, and this made Ilustrado not a linear work of fiction as a reader may hope it would be. In fact, as much as there is a consistent plot being followed, the entire novel is so fragmented that it’s visually challenging to read. Syjuco has invented Crispin Salvador as a prolific writer and therefore quotes ‘excerpts’ from the fictional author’s works. Reading this book required time because of the explorative way it was written. I don’t think anyone can consume it in just a few days. By its very definition, Ilustrados are ‘enlightened’ Filipinos who lived abroad and were able to understand firsthand what centuries of colonization have done to our nation, and so they seek for reform in an intellectual sense. Jose Rizal is one. And so are the characters Crispin and Miguel in this book. Most of the time it’s difficult to distinguish whose story it truly is, and about halfway through the novel, I realized that it is every Filipino’s story; all of us who never stop yearning for progress in a country with a decaying economy, dirty politics and hypocritical Christian values.
Syjuco’s prose is beautiful in the most harrowing and irritating sense. The passages are filled with feelings familiar with a Filipino individual, with all the aches, desires and disillusions we share as a colonozied nation, and yet the prose manages to alienate a more critical reader because the entire novel is a tapestry so convoluted and overwhelming at times that there was no defining bigger picture to put the puzzles neatly together. This is both the magic and weakness of Ilustrado. As terribly enchanting and genuinely humorous the excerpts from Salvador’s works were, Syjuco’s plot is hardly distinguishable; his side of the story alternates between autobiographical lamentations to psychological examinations of the Filipino identity or lack thereof. Though this book is a work of fiction, it translates more as a memoir of a person (who is by all accounts not even real), though perhaps that was the intention. If Salvador was meant to mirror the neglected Philippine literature, then Miguel (not the actual author but the ‘protagonist’) is the reflection of a generation of youth who is a mix of different cultures that are not its own, and the only distinctive quality that makes it unique is the diversity itself.
I battled within myself how I could review this novel while I balance both subjective and objective opinions. In a more personal sense, this book was an accomplishment of multitude proportions. It was intelligent, funny and intense. It casted a spell on me the whole time I was reading it. It was the kind of story that feels important because you relate strongly to it, even if the true reason is unknowable. I applaud Syjuco’s grasp of the English language while at the same time using it as distinctively Filipino. His prose has the same layers as our national identity like the scattered entities of our own geographical distance; we live separately because our country is an archipelago but in a more symbolic sense than the literal. When this book was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize, Syjuco claimed that "I’m a Filipino. I’m nothing else but a Filipino. I’d like to be a writer, not just defined by race." The product of his literary quest is a novel where fact and fiction are interchangeable at both its best and worst. Realities are blurred in this work of art, and oftentimes that it became exhausting to keep up with.
I’m almost afraid to be critical of this book, and it’s probably because in doing so I fear that it would devalue the enjoyment and other more sentimental feelings I have for Ilustrado. But two days after finishing it, I was finally able to de-mystify and make more sense of this book once I’ve separated myself from its transformative hold. This was also made possible when I finally figured out the epilogue. It took me a while but once it hit me, I was more confounded than satisfied. It enabled me to re-examine the book again with a more critical stance. There was definitely an overreaching quality to the way Syjuco wrote this story. There are so many threads that he had to connect together but the threads were not gracefully woven in the first place so the endgame was composed of many frays rather than with something concrete. I was not too happy about that. It certainly felt like all that time I spent in the darkness was absurdity itself because there was a candle behind me the whole time and all I needed to do was to turn around and grab it. I suppose that Syjuco’s novel is what it is because he is still defined by the Filipino’s search for national identity, even if he doesn’t want to believe it himself. We cannot escape the pull of our race and all its trappings. Much like Luna’s painting of Spolarium, we bask in our colonization, and our struggle to be individualistic still comes back to our purgatory where we are never going to be complete as persons, or whole as a nation. And there’s beauty in that decay.
RATING: 8.5/10 RECOMMENDED
Even with its flaws in narrative and consistent storytelling, Ilustrado is stylish and daring for its literary execution. The prose is crisp with memorable passages and its defying structure makes it unable for readers to put it in a specific genre. This novel can be enjoyed best if you read nothing else. Because of the fragmented way it was written, you shouldn’t put it down for too long if you do take a break. It may take a while to develop a momentum when you read it.