Review Post 35 – The Homesick and the Enlightened

Being an ex-pat can be tough at times.  In your new country, you are seen as a living stereotype, a breathing, walking example of everything the locals have ever heard about your country from their television set.  Back ‘home’, you are a bit of an outcast; your accent’s gone a bit funny, you haven’t heard of any recent pop stars or Big Brother housemates, and you have difficulty working out what order the colours go in at traffic lights.  You make people a little uneasy, and you don’t feel completely at home any more.  If I, an Englishman living in Australia (one of the easiest of migrations on the planet), feel like this, imagine the issues a trip home raises for someone split between two less similar countries…  Welcome to the world of Miguel Syjuco, the Filipino author of Ilustrado.

The book, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, begins with famous Filipino writer Crispin Salavador, the mentor of young student Miguel, face down in the Hudson River in New York.  The death of the Asian literary lion causes ripples in his home country and leads to Miguel’s trip back to the Philippines to help tie up some loose ends for Crispin’s family and to search for the manuscript of his legendary last book, The Bridges Ablaze.  Miguel is ostensibly returning home to interview his teacher’s friends and family, gathering information for the biography he has decided to write.  However, his journey has other, more personal, reasons; he needs to confront his past and examine his identity to find out where he really belongs.

Although the reader wishes Miguel well on his journey, it is hinted from the start that this is no ordinary quest. One of the names discovered in Crispin’s notes for his last novel is Dulcinea – the lead character’s unwitting lady love in the Spanish classic Don Quixote. When you add this to the use of the word Quixotic in an excerpt from an interview with Crispin (p.21), where he is discussing the role of Filipino writers, you begin to suspect that there are many tilts at windmills to come.

Apart from dealing with Miguel’s identity issues, the novel also looks at Filipino society and politics, which (on the evidence of this book) seem inextricably linked. Through radio updates, text messages and the odd television news break, Syjuco manages to create an authentic backdrop of scandal, intrigue and revolution, set in an imaginary parallel 2002 Manila. Regular news on President Estragan, it-girl of the moment Vita Nova, renegade mercenary Wigberto Lakandula and religious leader Reverend Martin helps to colour in Syjuco’s world, based (no doubt) on people who actually existed in the Philippines.

A word of warning: Ilustrado is not your average straight up and down linear narrative. Syjuco has created a tangled web of stories, some intersecting, some parallel to the main narrative, others seemingly superfluous or, at best, tangential.  While this can be confusing at first, they do serve a purpose, filling the reader in on some important background and commenting on Filipino history and personality.  Many of the strands are excerpts from the many works of the – fictional – Crispin Salvador (although at the time of writing, Salvador’s English Wikipedia page is longer than Syjuco’s…), including some taken from a monstrous autobiography entitled Autoplagiarist.  With the protagonist Miguel sharing his name with Ilustrado‘s author, it seems an apt choice of title…

It can be difficult at times to keep track of what is happening in the chaos, and non-Filipino readers (which would be most of us – in the small area of the blogosphere I frequent, I’m only aware of a couple of writers from the Philippines) may struggle to keep up at times.  Jackie, of Farm Lane Books, recently blogged about a site called Book Drum, where kindly readers patch together background information about a novel to enhance the reading experience.  If anyone would care to do this for Ilustrado, you would be doing us all a huge favour…

For anyone who muddles their way through the thickets of autobiography extracts, self-deprecating ethnic jokes, snippets of interviews and parallel narrative though, there is great joy to be had with this Mitchell-esque style of editing the facts.  Nothing is certain or fixed (I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Crispin’s unpublished masterpiece is often referred to by its initials – TBA…).  The fiction within the fiction has echoes of the actual fiction (or should that be the fictional reality), and the reader is able to follow both Miguel’s Manila adventure and Crispin’s rise to fame as a new Ilustrado.

But what does the title actually mean?  Well, I suspect most English speakers would take a stab at ‘illustrated’, but it is actually translated as ‘enlightened’ and is an expression used to describe the nineteenth-century Filipino intelligentsia (such as the Philippines’ most famous writer, Jose Rizal) who travelled to Spain to study and ended up becoming the leaders of the revolution against the Spanish in their homeland.  Crispin’s days as a guerrilla fighting the new American imperialists would allow him to take on this mantle, but is there a deeper meaning linked to the text?  Probably, but it may take me a few more readings to ferret one out (or make one up…).

In short, a fascinating story on many levels, set somewhere I know very little about.  Reading this has encouraged me to branch out a little, and I’d like to read Rizal’s classic Noli Me Tangere at some point to go back to the roots of Syjuco’s heritage and style.  Anyway, here’s to the next book by Syjuco – or perhaps next time he can introduce us to some more of the work of the mysterious Crispin Salvador…


P.S. – Thanks to Alysha from Random House Australia for sending me this copy of Ilustrado 🙂 


10 thoughts on “Review Post 35 – The Homesick and the Enlightened

  1. It is great to know that the title translates as 'enlightened' I foolishly didn't look it up. I'm really pleased that you enjoyed it and I hope that you decide to re-read this one and come up with a few more gems for me. I think this is a fantastic book, but that book drum profile would be of massive use. I'm afraid I'm not very good at studying a book on my own and so much of this book's magic passed me by.

    I think that you may be right about this one not qualifying for the Booker. For some reason I thought he might, but I think its absense from the long list proves it wasn't eligible, as if it was there is no way it would have been missed.

    I hope a few more people decide to read this wonderful book and explain it a bit more!


  2. As mentioned in my comment on your post, there's the possibility that he has picked up Canadian citizenship (or that studying in Adelaide for a PhD mean he's eligible for the Booker!).

    The further I got into the book, the more sense the digressions made as each shone a light on the behaviour of Miguel, Crispin or the Philippines as a whole. It really helps to have a background in modern Filipino history to truly get the whole effect though; if EDSA means nothing to you, the book won't have the full weight of interest which a Filipino will find in it.

    So, once again, thank you Wikipedia 😉


  3. Nice review Tony! I already have the book but haven't gotten past page 3 or 4 yet. I'm a Filipino, and I can tell that based on what I gather from your review (and the few pages I've sampled out), Ilustrado won't be an easy read even for us living in the Philippines.

    I think you'll like Noli. I haven't read it in full, but I remember some parts of it from high school and I'm aware of the plot. I think it'll remind you of classical Spanish epics.

    Thanks for this review!


  4. Marieke – It's an interesting idea for a genre! A few Indian books would qualify for starters…

    Mark David – Many of the events in 'Ilustrado' are fictional, but they are based on real events prior to the time of the book, so knowing what happened around the turn of the century will give you a background which non-Filipino readers simply won't have.

    As for 'Noli Me Tangere', it's on my list of books to read; however, even Father Christmas' toy list has nothing on my reading one 😉


  5. Hi Tony, I'm really glad to see that you enjoyed the book despite knowing little about the Philippines' culture and history. You are right, just hearing EDSA brings so much to me that non-Filipinos wouldn't be able to connect with. I realize that the advantage that American and European literature have is that the whole world (even the Philippines) is aware of the current events and a little of their histories, so readers such as I am bound to also connect with American and European lit whereas Filipino lit would somehow be lost on readers of other nationalities. I wish I could create a BookDrum entry for Ilustrado but truly have not the time to devote to it.

    I hope you get to enjoy Noli Me Tangere (and its sequel El Filibusterismo). I have read them in Tagalog and two English translations. My favourite translation was Soledad Lacson-Locsin's because I felt it the most accessible.


  6. Perhaps one day you can find the time to put together a Book Drum entry on this book: I know a lot of people who would be very grateful for one 🙂

    I know there is a Penguin edition of 'Noli Me Tangere', so I'll see if I can get around to it some time soon – no promises though 😉


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