Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado is the novel made for re-reading. There are continual twists and turns and questions about the nature of fiction writing that immediately attune one to the constructed nature of the textual landscape. Indeed, Ilustrado is a metafiction, as it involves a character by the name of Miguel, a writer living in New York who is researching the life of a Filipino expatriate writer named Crispin Salvador.
At the beginning of the novel, the readers discover that Crispin has died under mysterious circumstances. Miguel, having been acquainted with and impressed by Salvador’s work and life, goes about trying to find out what might have happened to Salvador, especially as he embarks on writing Salvador’s life story. The novel is written with this main storyline, but scattered throughout are excerpts from Salvador’s many creative writings, both fictional and nonfictional in scope. There are also various interviews and blog excerpts that continually provide more context and more complexity to Crispin Salvador.
The other major narrative involves Miguel’s own life, one marked by the tragic and premature death of both his mother and father. Miguel and his many siblings are raised by his grandparents. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the novel takes us to the Philippines where Miguel is both haunted by the tensions that have disintegrated his family and looks to discovering more about his esteemed Crispin Salvador.
The title of Miguel’s novel, comes from the Filipino elite that traveled to Europe in the late nineteenth century in order to receive an education. In this regard, the “enlightened ones” speaks to the complicated ways in which the colonial subject could continue to be indoctrinated by the cultural capital devised out of the imperial enterprise. Nevertheless, the education that the ilustrados received also helped foment the revolutionary ideals espoused by those such as Jose Rizal. In this way, the novel is distinctly postcolonial in character inasmuch as it might be called Asian American.
Following Crispin’s life through the eyes of Miguel’s work and by other creative excerpts, the novel does track an impressive array of historical changes that have typified the Philippines in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Crispin, having been raised in affluence, must come to terms with his class background and finds himself using writing as a venue to share his political sentiments. The hope for the venue of writing as a direct instigator of political activism is a vexed issue throughout the novel and we can see that Syjuco is tarrying with the complex ways in which representation, referent, and social protest collide. Miguel, too, comes from a clearly privileged background and all throughout the novel we see the ways in which class stratification details the Manila landscape that becomes a sort of “third” character.
Like the recently reviewed, A Thread of Sky, Syjuco excels at painting a picture of modern metropolitan Manila in all of its intricacies and these urbanscapes become the terrain upon which power and difference can be situated. As the plot moves directly into the homes and lives of individual characters, we see, for instance, the way in which the domestic workers are subordinated and often times flagrantly abused. In the clubscapes, individuals worry about the latest fashions and where to score a round of drugs. The profligacy of the Manila elite is meant to destabilize any deterministic trajectory of the country’s progressivism. In addition, the political ruling class is also portrayed as corrupt and ineffectual. In this general space of guarded pessimism, the novel begins to turn inward with a major shift in the conclusion that queries the entire nature of the narrative trajectory itself. It begs the question about the construction of the modern Filipino/American subject, and he or she has come to exist at hazy boundary between fantasy and reality.
Ilustrado is a consummately entertaining book, one that will have you immediately re-reading, spending more time on the many different threads that hold the book together.