Ilustrado Novel Review Essay

The "Ilustrados" from whom Miguel Syjuco derives his title – the enlightened ones – were Europeanised Filipinos who came home, from 1860 onwards, to prepare for revolution. He himself writes in English and has developed as a writer at such institutions as Columbia University and the University of Adelaide. Many if not most of the narrative mechanisms of this first novel don't actually work, but it's hard to quarrel with the judges who awarded it the Man Asian literary prize. At one point Syjuco describes the white sky over Manila bay as a blank page waiting for its first mark – but anyone who reads Ilustrado is likely to feel that the skyline has been richly inscribed and illuminated.

The plot starts with the death by drowning in New York of a famous writer called Crispin Salvador, a gadfly in exile who can rarely resist provoking the powers that be in his home country. There is a noir tinge to this opening and a scattering of clues. Salvador leaves behind a list of names, but no trace of the manuscript (The Bridges Ablaze) that was supposed to establish his reputation for all time, as well as to settle any outstanding scores.

The novel's narrator is a younger Filipino writer, a student of Salvador's who became close to him in his last weeks, who decides to follow the clues back to the Philippines and to write the biography of his mentor.

Neither of these characters comes to life. Salvador is a bizarrely prolific producer in a number of genres, from the essay, the poem and the guide book to the disco musical, and extensive extracts are included from his works. His thriller and his books for children are equally feeble, and even the historical novel The Enlightened is closer to the Cookson-axis than the Tolstoy-axis of the genre.

Salvador's own life includes some rather false notes, when for instance the family's Japanese gardener, though turning out to have been a spy all along, intervenes to save the family he has come to value. There's a reference elsewhere to "the melodramatic tradition that links every genre" of film in the Philippines, and even an academic book called And Then The Locusts Came: The Socio-political Relevance of Melodrama in Philippine Literature in English. The tone here is two-faced: half defensive, half defiant.

Salvador's chief usefulness is as a mouthpiece for oblique manifestos along these lines, descriptions of what Syjuco wants to avoid: "What is Filipino writing? Living on the margins, a bygone era, loss, exile, poor-me angst, postcolonial identity theft. Tagalog words intermittently scattered around for local colour, exotically italicised. Run-on sentences and facsimiles of magical realism, hiding behind the disclaimer that we Pinoys were doing it years before the South Americans..."

Miguel Syjuco has taken the odd decision to name the younger writer after himself, and also to give names to the character's five siblings which share at least an initial letter with his own. Intermittently he treats "Miguel Syjuco" parodistically, having him try to share his pornography habit with girlfriend Madison out of a commitment to honesty (the two of them are ex-drug addicts turned vegans).

In the mix somewhere is the fact that his parents were tragically killed when he was a child, but these elements, pseudo-autobiography, broad comedy and standard genre-movie motivation (might Salvador by any chance represent the lost father to "Miguel"?), don't begin to mesh.

The noir conventions soon run out of steam in the Philippines. There's no menace, no sense of urgency, just some literary legwork – two interviews with people from Salvador's past, one critic who doesn't show up.

A writer with a stronger sense of pace wouldn't risk inserting jokes about stock Filipino characters into the book as little setpieces. Not all of the jokes are particularly funny, and most of them would work just as well told with Welsh or Irish stereotypes.

Salvador and "Miguel" are similar in many respects. Both have daughters with whom they have no contact, and both had privileged upbringings – their exile has little in common with that state as it is experienced by hundreds and thousands of their fellow-countrymen, as a hard fact of economic life. But the two writers also share a conviction that creating a national literature is a civic duty. In one of Salvador's better harangues, he argues against Seamus Heaney's aphorism that: "No lyric ever stopped a tank" by asking: "How can anyone estimate the ballistic qualities of words? ...lyrics in the hot head and swelling heart of a young reader, well, Mr Heaney, there by the grace of God goes your tank buster..."

The pleasures of Ilustrado are not in the rather creaky evocations of the past nor in a rhetoric that grows increasingly sententious as the book goes on, but in its sophisticated and seductive evocation of modern Manila. The book displays in a kaleidoscope a culture that has already been through the mincer called history any number of times. Animism, Catholicism and fundamentalisms both Christian and Islamic overlap, and between the president, the senator, the sexpot dancer and the reverend it's a toss-up as to who will be in jail and who will be giving a press conference to unveil a surprising alliance.

There's a reference to Humboldt's Gift early in the novel, and it may be that the two-writers-of-different-generations idea is owed to that source. But Bellow's real achievement was the breezy entitlement announced in the opening of Augie March, and that too is the triumph of Miguel Syjuco's book. It might seem to be relatively easy to follow in Bellow's footsteps, but I wonder if it's not actually harder, now that various globalised subcultures put empty words in everyone's mouth.

Young people in Syjuco's Manila freely mix the local word "pare", the American "dude" and "fligga" (Filipino nigga). There can be low jokes (self-pleasuring described as "talking to Palmela Handerson") and sharp turns of phrase (someone feels like "a spoon sparking in a microwave") but when a woman enters the club where the DJ is sampling electro classics, "Miguel" is reminded of one of the nymphs in a pre-Raphaelite painting giving Hylas the eye: "I swear, Waterhouse must have secretly loved a Filipina mestiza." Miguel Syjuco makes it all his.

By Mike Jakeman

Ilustrado, winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and the debut novel by a young Filipino writer, Miguel Syjuco, begins with that most familiar of plot devices: a body in a river. In this case, the corpse is that of Crispin Salvador, a once-celebrated novelist in his native Philippines, who meets his end in the Hudson in New York. His death is most keenly felt by his student, enigmatically also called Miguel Syjuco, who returns to Manila to investigate the cause of Salvador’s death and find his teacher’s missing manuscript, which he hopes will restore Salvador’s reputation.

Despite the premise, Ilustrado is not a literary thriller. Instead, it has wider pretensions in both form and content. Through the narrative of Miguel’s journey home, Syjuco has attempted to write an all-encompassing state-of-the-nation novel. Thus, the travails of the Philippines’ young democracy and its grasping political class form a noisy background to Miguel’s quest. Syjuco’s Philippines is a thrusting, vibrant, and populous place, ‘tangled with good intentions and a tyrannical will to live’. It is also one of vast inequality, a country that in living memory has seen both dictatorship and popular revolution, and is struggling with the value that democracy puts on collective, rather than individual, benefit.

Observers will recognise the fluid allegiances of the novel’s politicians, powerful families, the priesthood, and the media, where relationships are only as strong as the money behind them. The novel’s (fictional) president, Fernando V Estregan, is a thinly-veiled rendering of a former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Not only does the timing of their administrations coincide, but like Macapagal Arroyo, Estregan bends the will of the Supreme Court to allow him to serve a second term. Similarly, the wealthy Changco family echo the real-life Lopez dynasty. Therefore, the world of Ilustrado is an unsettling place to be: both recognisable and yet unmistakably foreign. The novel references everyone from Hans Blix to Paris Hilton, but alongside these are plausible inventions such Vita Nova, a singer and actress embroiled in a presidential sex scandal, and Wigberto Lakandula, a vigilante security guard turned national celebrity.

Reinforcing this uncertainty is Syjuco’s use of form, which borrows from and modernises the epistolary novels of the 19th century. It consists of a series of short fragments from multiple sources, including extracts from Miguel’s part-written biography of Salvador, blog posts, newspaper editorials, and letters, in addition to Miguel’s own first-person narration and an authorial third-person perspective. Traditionally, the advantage of this technique was the chance to offer multiple views on the same event (and thus cast doubt on the reliability on any or all of the characters). Here, Syjuco is making a different point: by frequently interrupting Miguel’s narrative, he is attempting to show the nature of the modern way of absorbing information, where facts come not from a single trusted source, but from everywhere, in real-time, and without any guarantee of accuracy or reliability. It is a technique that works well in such a lively setting as modern metro Manila.

The great problem with Syjuco’s novel is Salvador himself, who fails to become the equal of Miguel’s labours. An introductory essay promises a rumbustious figure, possessed of sufficient moral vigour to expose police brutality, but enough impish humour to pen an essay titled ‘It’s Hard to Love a Feminist’. Who would not want to resurrect a character that dates Belarussian ballerinas, writes satirical travel guides, upsets the literary community, and flees to New York, supplementing his income by writing trashy thrillers? Unfortunately, the answer is us, as Salvador never truly comes to life. He is less the writer that ‘set Philippine letters alight and carried its luminescence to the rest of the world’ as Miguel promises, and more a self-indulgent hack-of-all trades. When Salvador is given his chance to speak directly—in fictionalised interviews with The Paris Review—he is intellectually obtuse. Worse, the extracts of his novels, the precious things that so inspire Miguel, are only occasionally diverting, and more often are boring.

Ironically, this is not to the detriment of Syjuco as a writer. He is remarkably adept at composing the bad genre novels that Salvador wrote at his lowest ebb, and those torturous interviews with The Paris Review are sufficiently pretentious to be convincing. But he fails to persuade the reader that Salvador was a great writer, leaving the impression that Miguel’s endeavours are misplaced.

Yet despite the failure of the central narrative, Syjuco has written a novel with much to admire. He successfully captures Miguel’s sense of dislocation when he returns to the Philippines from the US (‘I’m like a salmon coming home to spawn, at a point of origin so alien that it feels like my birth certificate was false’), and a scene in which a group of unbearably smug literary critics pull apart Salvador’s work is satire at its most delicious. It also has much to offer in its dissection of the Philippines, a country that is too rarely reported on. But it is also possible that the next corpse to be dragged from the Hudson will have more of a story to tell.


Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits:

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