Book Review: Ilustrado
There are only three truths. That which can be known. That which can never be known. The third, which concerns the writer alone, truly is neither of these. – Crispin Salvador
The Philippines is a country unlike any other. Our trajectory in history has been decided, for more than 300 years, by foreigners who colonized us. This, in turn, made us search and question our identity and place in history. Should our norms, practices, and culture be Asian, European, or American? In whose footsteps do we follow and what standard should we adapt? The answer, I guess, lies in our mixed heritage. We have in our country a mixture of different identities that converge to create our own. We have a political system that we share with our American colonizers but entrenched in this political system is a feudal relationship between the politicians and the electorate that we got from our Spanish colonizers; our cuisine and culture is deeply Spanish but we are quickly leaning towards an Americanized culture as history moves on; and our respect for tradition and authority is a symbol that, even if we have been Westernized by America and Spain, we are still rooted in Asia.
Thus it is imperative that we, the Filipinos, should learn about our country and our shared history. But learning 300+ years of history is a tiresome endeavor as everybody experienced in our high school years. Plus a year of studying Philippine History, aside from being boring, is insufficient if you want to learn about the underlying conditions, the implications, and the nuances of Philippine society then and now.
Isn’t there a way to make the learning of such subjects concise yet entertaining? Enter Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. A book that attempts to squeeze 150+ years of Philippine history into 300+ pages. A mean and ambitious endeavor especially for a first novel by a writer.
Ilustrado is a novel that tells about the life and death of Crispin Salvador, a self-exiled writer living in America, through the eyes of Miguel Syjuco, his protégé and our narrator (who is also the author of the book). Miguel is searching for the lost manuscript of Salvador, which is supposed to be the latter’s magnum opus, and he is compelled to come back to the Philippines to search and to investigate. Along the literary journey, the main narrative is interposed with stories that Salvador has written. These include the story of Dulce, a tomboyish girl living in a seemingly magical Manila; Cristo Salvador, Crispin’s grandfather, who is a major figure in the Philippine-American War; Antonio Astig, a crime writer investigating serial killings in Manila; and many other characters that are not part of the main narrative but was included in the attempt to portray every facet of Filipino life.
And Syjuco explored many themes in his ambitious work. He portrayed the Filipino in varying situations. He explored the Filipino in exile; the Filipino diaspora; the reluctant hero that resides within us; the corruption that has trickled down from the past to the present; the unchanged political system; the disparity between rich and poor; the sad situation of the youth today; and many more representations, situations, and trends in Filipino society both past and present which are mostly negative. It is a hard truth to swallow but it is the reality that we face and Ilustrado is not at fault for pointing this out.
Ilustrado is an ambitious work. Reading it reminds me of my experience reading Bend Sinister, one of the first novels by Vladimir Nabokov. I think it represents the stage in which the writer writes in order to make an impression on other people. A stage where words are flowery, concepts are too abstract, and understanding the work does not flow naturally. So I describe Ilustrado because reading it requires a dictionary and the repetition of certain passages to interpret the text more fully. But it does not hide the fact that Ilustrado is a work of brilliance even if there are moments when a reader does not like what he is reading.
And, at the end of the novel, the reader will be more surprised. This may be the only moment when I doubted Syjuco’s brilliance. Was the ending a clichéd one, one which is created to just wow the readers and create a plot twist at the end? Or was it a deliberate ending that was thought of at the book’s creation and which serves a higher purpose than surprising the reader? In the end, after reading the final chapters again, I find that it may have served a higher purpose than shock value and my faith in Syjuco was restored.
I do not know if Ilustrado will become a classic in Filipino literature but I will never contest the fact that it is a worthwhile read and it is worthy of attention. In between the covers, I learned and relearned many things about the history of these 7,107 islands we know as the Philippines and that is not a bad thing.