Book Review: In Ilustrado and Eight Lives Lived, Which Life is Worth Writing About?


The award-winning novel Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco follows the tradition of ‘the great Filipino novel’: it is political and outwardly rooting for social change. Its title alone is pregnant with possibilities of exhortation and uprisings. After all, the original Ilustrados in Philippine history launched the Propaganda Movement more than a century ago, creating literary gems that inspired Filipinos to unite and revolt against colonialism.

Today Syjuco refurbished the memory of the Ilustrado and in his acclaimed debut novel, called on migrant Filipinos to become like modern-day Ilustrados. Syjuco himself is an expat Filipino when he wrote it. He studied literature abroad and worked at various odd jobs while in university. He is currently based in Australia.

Ilustrado has won two top literary awards – a Palanca award and the Man Asian Literary Prize, the latter being the first for any Filipino writer- before it was published this year in the Philippines, North America, Canada, UK and Australia.

As a modern-day Ilustrado, in Syjuco-speak, his novel has portions exposing corruption, tolerance or abetting of corruption, and abuses of those in power in the Philippines; it has portions describing the effects of poverty to Filipinos and their relationships; it has portions where his main characters- Crispin Salvador and Miguel Syjuco- are criticizing all these.

All of these elements are woven by Syjuco in a somewhat modern structure for a novel. In a fictitious interview with one of his characters, the writer-critic Marcel Avellaneda, the real Miguel Syjuco ascribed Ilustrado’s structure to two “eureka moments.” The first hit him when he was working for the Paris Review in New York fact-checking old writers-at-work interviews. He liked the idea of presenting a writer based on a collection of his interviews and work excerpts, and so he did exactly that for his main character, a progressive writer called Crispin Salvador.

Another eureka hit Syjuco while he was watching a documentary on T’Boli weaving. The T’Boli is one of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. Their weaving and method of creating patterns struck Syjuco enough that he took apart his then draft novel, resulting in what was published today as Ilustrado.

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Other reviews described his style or structure as a “pastiche,” as it consistently included passages from supposed journals, blogs and emails, jokes, excerpts of stories, news and interviews, in between actual movement in the characters’ story.

Multi-layered Self-Introspection

Ilustrado tells the life of two writers, one old and one young. The young writer and protagonist called Miguel Syjuco (different from the author Miguel Syjuco, according to him), has set out to investigate the cause of death of Crispin Salvador, and to locate the missing manuscript of his nearly finished final novel. Entitled The Bridges Ablaze, this exposé is supposed to be crucial because it threatened to thoroughly sever Salvador’s relations with his wealthy and conservative landlord-politician family.

Syjuco’s investigation would eventually put an end to his live-in relationship in New York, and make him fly home to the Philippines. His notes on this return trip, his meetings with old and new friends, his cerebral interviews and musings concerning the family and acquaintances and rebellious dalliances and writing gigs of Crispin Salvador, and the two writers’ surfacing skeletons in their rich family’s closet, basically comprise the book.

All in all, it boils down to a multi-layered self-introspection of an idealist and individualist writer, though supposedly in two persons’ or two writers’ eyes. Its visual counterpart is akin to that of a viewer looking at himself through layers of mirrors.

But in the end, can Ilustrado, as the originals started a century before, cause a ripple in politics or at least, in “the new Ilustrado” of today? Judging from the un-Ilustrado-ish gloom of the novel, it seems unlikely, unfortunately.

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Ilustrado may read like an eloquent, some say ‘unflinching,’ airing of dirty linen of members of the Filipino elite, but it is far from revolutionary. Its main characters came from families who are long-time members of the Filipino ruling elite, which is a combination of big landlords and comprador bourgeoisie. Crispin Salvador is a Spanish mestizo and son of a haciendero-politician. Miguel Syjuco, not the author but Salvador’s devoted young student writer, is a grandson of a politician couple with business and political connections profitable enough to yield “wads and wads of money” to send Syjuco and his five siblings to school abroad, and keep mansions in their home province and in Forbes Park, the Philippines’ toniest address.

While membership in this wealthy, ruling class does not exactly bar them from calling or working for social change, as Syjuco’s main characters eloquently did numerous times in Ilustrado, in the end these characters not only embraced the system that they could not seem to see how to leave, let alone “reboot.” They decided to let it all be, despite their seeming disgust at it, and even after they have expended some personal sacrifices to figuratively give this system the finger. Either they reconciled and made peace with their own derided class, or their revolutionary potential was killed off in the novel.

In the beginning and in the end of Ilustrado someone washes up dead in the river, tying the novel close in a modern, some say M. Night Shyamalan, way. Whoever it was that really got drowned unfortunately seems to represent the heroic activist in its protagonists. As in, one was rumoured to be almost done with his novel exposing the abuses of the ruling elite when he supposedly died. The other has just decided to risk his own skin to save two children’s lives from the flood when he supposedly died.

As if these deaths were not enough, there are other patterns woven into Ilustrado that, un-Ilustrado-ish, suggest of ending activism or of dreaming of a better world. There’s the early death of activist Mutya Dimatahimik, the burning of the anticipated novel The Bridges Ablaze, the commission into a mental institution of Dulce the dreamer, the culturati’s scorn for progressive writer Crispin Salvador, Miguel Syjuco’s makeup homecoming to his grandfather’s Forbes Park home, the ascent into the presidency and into the snare of the same corrupt system by OFW daughter Girly Bastos.

“Oh, sweetheart. What can anyone do? That’s just the way things are. You really think you can change the world?” Said the governor grandma to Miguel in page 52.

All this pessimism shrouded the Ilustrado in a sombre mood even though it reflected the Pinoy penchant for jokes and resilience.

Ilustrado’s greatest strength is in showing us slices of lives of the Philippine elite. It will wow us to read about some of the members of the ruling elite in the Philippines agonizing about whether or not to be an armed revolutionary, a coward, or worse, a stooge. It gives us a peek of a landlord looking with longing at his former landholdings and comparing his diminished stature to other big landlords who had used the loopholes in the Philippines’ agrarian reform law to even expand their landholdings. It gives us an idea of the inner turmoil of a pampered youth who minded seeing the evidence of US eminence in the Philippines, as the US ambassador’s residence has taller, more secured gates than their home in Forbes Park. It may help us understand why an intelligent idealist would rather sniff cocaine and shirk politics than be gunned down for his ideals or else get sucked into corruption as well.

But beyond that, unlike the original Ilustrados who, though product of the rich had managed to go with the masses and tell their stories from their point of view, this refurbished Ilustrado tries at times to tell the story of the masses from the viewpoint still of the elite where they came from. As such, when it is not being cerebral and is supposedly chronicling the signs of the times, it reads like patronizing, even joking and making fun, of the masses.

Author Syjuco said his characters are “all representations of archetypes we all know.” But the trouble with archetypes is, these are largely created by the ruling class and propagated by its owned and controlled media.

The weakness of Ilustrado is in its main protagonists’ failure to depart from the narrow world and view of their class. It is small consolation that in return, they either get killed, or if they lived, they lived lives of luxury, paralyzing ambivalence and self-loathing, while all along they were drifting into historical inconsequence. (

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