The narrator of Miguel Syjuco’s novel, Ilustrado, is also named Miguel Syjuco, doubling as one of the novel’s two main characters while purporting to locate the manuscript of his dead mentor’s unfinished manuscript. Both the real Miguel Syjuco and his mentor, Crispin Salvador, are Filipinos, living in New York City, where Crispin has also been a university professor—in addition to writer in exile—supposedly encountering Syjuco in one of his graduate creative writing workshops. Since they share a Filipino heritage, when Crispin’s body is discovered in the Hudson River in the middle of winter, Miguel decides to write his mentor’s biography and also—perhaps more importantly—explain why the older man committed suicide.
“Ilustrado” is a word that was used to describe the elite Filipino class, enlightened because of their education, especially during the colonial era. What Ilustrado, the novel, makes immediately apparent is the continuation of privilege in Philippine society into more recent times, not simply because of economics but also because of education. These elite families, including the author’s, have typically been involved in the country’s politics. In a recent article about Syjuco in The New York Times, the author remarks, “My family, my friends, my colleagues—we are the elites… We are a wealthy, beautiful country, and we’ve screwed it up so badly. The majority of wealth is controlled by a minority. And we don’t know when enough is enough. The elite don’t want one mansion; they want three.” Think of Imelda Marcos’ 6000 pairs of shoes.
Syjuco further notes of his own family, “My dad wanted me to be a lawyer, a politician, the president of his country.” But Syjuco, thirty-three years old, has wisely chosen writing instead. While still in manuscript form, Ilustrado won the Man Asian Literary Prize. Syjuco has remarked of his book, it is “not the Great Philippine Novel,” ironically adding, “I don’t have all the answers. If I did, I’d be running for president.”
If Syjuco doesn’t have all of the political answers, he certainly has many of the artistic ones. Ilustrado is a glorious feast, a literary explosion, a dazzling accomplishment for any first novel—literally from the opening paragraphs of the story. Ransacking his mentor’s apartment for the manuscript to The Bridges Ablaze—often humorously referred to as TBA—Syjuco describes the book as “twenty years of work—a glacial accretion of research and writing—unknotting and unraveling the generations-long ties of the Filipino elite to cronyism, illegal logging, gambling, kidnapping, corruption, along with their related component sins. ‘All of humanity’s crimes,’ Salvador said, ‘…are only degrees of theft.’”
If this is true, what’s a writer—a real writer like Syjuco, instead of his faux writer named Salvador Crispin–to do? The answer is, of course, Ilustrado, replete with literary pyrotechnics that will give most other first novelists an inferiority complex. There is not simply the outer narrative of the young writer named Miguel Syjuco flying to the Philippines in search of clues that may unravel his mentor’s death and hopefully locate a copy of The Bridges Ablaze sent to his daughter, but an entire panoply of faux documents attributed to the deceased writer.
Thus, there are excerpts from Crispin’s greatest work, Autoplagiaris, as well as numerous lesser ones. There are passages from Syjukco’s biography-in-progress: Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived. There’s a fabulous 1991 Paris Review interview with the great author, filled with juicy observations about the writer’s worldview (“When who you are includes what you hate, you carry around your neck a daily reminder of what must be changed in the world.” Or, from the same interview, “Democracy is but an experimental system complete with its flaws.”) There are first person and third-person accounts of Syjuco’s movements around the Philippines in search of his dual quests. And, finally, an astonishing conflagration of characters and their quests in the novel’s brilliant ending.
Sprinkled throughout the narrative are the observations of a wit with remarkable charm, whether they relate short humorous incidents supposedly involving many of the novel’s minor characters, or—more frequently—one-line gags that take on the semblance of leitmotifs, especially when they are connected to historical figures: “The woman looks like an ugly version of Alice B. Toklas.” A poem called “Borges Disappointed by the Internet.” “A writer writing about sex won’t get anyone pregnant.” “As soon as the hit man got to the U.S. he’d be dazzled by the factory outlet sales and disappear.” “Pray tonight for a coup if you don’t want to go to school.”
Ilustrado is great fun, a literary cornucopia overflowing with delicious scenes, memorable characters, and dazzling language.
By Miguel Syjuco
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 306 pp., $26
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.