[book review] Ilustrado: A Novel

I have mixed feelings with Ilustrado.

Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, Ilustrado talks about the return of Miguel Syjuco, also the authors name, to the Philippines, to find more about the deceased Crispin Salvador, his mentor. He went back to the Philippines from New York to find out more about his mentor and potentially find his last manuscript that will expose several high flying, influential, and political families.

His journey spans over 150 years of Philippine history all the way from the Spanish occupation up to the recent Edsa revolutions. Here, he discovers a lot about his own family, his interactions with fellow authors and his “society”.

The character of Miguel feels like a reflection of the author. Born of a rich family, having the opportunity to travel the world and studied overseas, he felt as if he was an “Ilustrado” himself. Ilustrado in Spanish means the learned or enlightened one and was used in the Spanish colonization period by Filipinos studying in Spain. They were educated overseas with the goals of changing situations back in the Philippines.

The book was presented as a story within several stories, interweaving several books by both Crispin and Miguel as well as the ongoing story of Miguel’s visit to the Philippines. This format was a bit too hard to read and comprehend as several plot lines were happening. While the author wanted the stories to intertwine, it wasn’t the end result as some of the stories were too far off to remember or not as connected to the main story line as the others.

The story itself is interesting for a Filipino, especially the several metaphors with the current political landscape in the Philippines. It might be a bit hard to comprehend for somebody not familiar with Philippine politics and culture, as there’s a lot of local references sprinkled here and there but it won’t be a big barrier for you to get into the story.

Miguel Sjyuco, in a few of his interviews, mentioned that he didn’t want to be just a Filipino writer but a writer for the world. This didn’t come as strong as it should have through the novel as I felt that the whole book was not here or there. The main plot line was indeed captivating and it got me wanting for more. His exploits with his family and friends, his chronic drug use and his encounters with his new “friend” gave me a glimpse of his life. The main plot line mixes well with some of the stories, but too many things were going on that it lost focus.

I applaud Miguel for writing an honest piece about the Philippines. My hatred for poverty porn has been satiated by his representation of the Philippines. Even though it’s a side that most Filipinos never see, it’s honest and real.

If you have enough patience in you to read this book, you won’t be rewarded with something magnificent but you’ll wake up to a part of the Philippines you rarely see.

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