Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado is at heart a first novel, one that for its complexity and style, is still a personal novel that is both a search for the author’s past and his future in literary and personal terms. While the book is not an autobiographical novel as such and the Miguel Syjuco character is not really Miguel Syjuco the author, from his interviews and in a book presentation I saw, it is obvious that Miguel Syjuco the author has added a strong autobiographic element. Even for a reader who doesn’t know much about Syjuco it is obvious he hasn’t let go of the first novel elements: the tendency to justify one’s self; the need to explain one’s passions as if they’d occurred to just you. In Ilustrado this shows itself in conversations about the nature of Philippine writing. In a recent interview he said he wanted to move away from the topical writing that talks of nouns the color of tamrind or mango. It is a laudable goal, but in practice the conversation the characters have about writing, the nature of being a writer, how one survives on writing, are the same ones all writers have. He achieves some of these goals in his writing and it is unfortunate he had to articulate them in such an overt manner since it distracts from the rest of the book.
Despite its fragmentary nature, though, Ilustrado does hold together well. Ostensibly, Ilustrado is the search for an explanation to Philippine author Crispen Salvador’s death. What the book really is, is an examination of modern Philippine life, from serious in its political unrest and corruption to the light with its jokes, all of it mixed with history, both real and imagined, that paints the a picture of a dysfunctional country always on the edge of revolution, unable to free itself from corruption and colonial history. Syjuco is particularly hard on the upper classes who buy and sell elected office as if it were a birthright. Miguel Syjuco the character has attempted to escape from them to New York and the tension he feels between their democratic statements and their authoritarian tactics give the book an undercurrent of anger. In Crispen Salvador, Syjuco creates a character that is a nationalist, but also anti-establishment, which gives him an opportunity to delve into the recent past and show some of the movements against the Marcos regime. On the face of it Salvador would be a great hero, but he is also a writer and he makes the continual mistake, at least in the eyes of many in the Philippines, of pointing out the flaws with the Philippines. Yet both characters are unable to escape the need to return, whether physically or in writing, to the Philippines and they find themselves as both frustrated by the long history of corruption and still hoping they can change things. The tension between the expatriate intellectual and those in the home country is what Syjuco does best and the novel opens up Philippine history to new readers. It is only when he mixes in the autobiographical that the book slows down.
Much has been made of his technique, a pastiche of narrative, jokes, history, and excerpts from Salvador’s writing. Taken in its totality it is effective in giving readers a sense of the country, but the experience of reading it can be a little exasperating. You need to have faith that all the elements will tie together, even if some seem completely out of context. At times, the structure seems more a trick than a fully developed element, especially as the story comes to a conclusion and Miguel Syjuco’s sections grow in length as his story begins to unfold.
Regardless of these problems, Ilustrado is a good first novel and one that, despite its annoyances, suggests good things to come.
Listen to an interview with him at the World Books podcast.