Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

8 February, 2011

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 color, exotically italicized. Run-on sentences and facsimiles of Magical Realism, hiding behind the disclaimer that we Pinoys were doing it years before the South Americans. … Our heartache for home is so profound that we can’t get over it, even when we are home and never left.

Wow, this is one hell of a literary ride. You know when you open a book and start reading and you get the sensation in the pit of your stomach that tells you that this book is good and that you want to bathe in the author’s prose? Ok, maybe not bathe, but you know what I mean. I felt it with this one. But it doesn’t mean that the book will be easy to read or that I’ll whizz through it. Oftentimes I find it incredibly difficult to read. But still, you just KNOW that you love the writing. Well, it happened with Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco but boy did it take me ages to finish the dang book.

As with a lot of very literary novels that probably began in literary workshops/creative writing programs, Syjuco’s novel takes the idea of a novel and tries to subvert the theme. Like with David Mitchell’s experimental Cloud Atlas which took its cue from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller. I can’t quite remember where I read something similar to Syjuco’s style but I like all this novel-in-a-novel and who-wrote-what business. It’s clever and entertaining.

One of the things I was looking forward to about reading Ilustrado was that it’s about the Phillipines. I was excited to learn about the history and culture (both traditional and modern) of a country I have never visited, but to which I’ve always had some connection: one of our neighbours and best friends was a Filipina when we were growing up in Thailand, one of my friends in London is a Filipina, my eldest nephews’ nanny was Filipina and my father’s work often took him to the Phillipines in the early 80s and he has many friends there. So it’s a land I’m familiar with but know nothing about.

In Ilustrado we meet a young would-be novelist Miguel Syjuco (see what he’s done here?) whose mentor and Professor Crispin Salvador has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Whether it’s suicide, murder or an accident, nobody knows. Salvador, from a prominent political mestizo family similar to Miguel’s, who once belonged to the Cinqe Bravo collective that tried to destabilise and re-establish the literary and political scene in the Phillipines has offended many people in his native country and spent the later years of his life teaching literature in a prominent US college and trying to complete his magnum opus, The Bridges Ablaze, which seems to have vanished along with his life. Miguel who is planning to write Salvador’s biography feels it is his destiny to try and find out what happened and to search for that elusive manuscript. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he hops onto a plane and returns to the Phillipines to search the truth about Salvador and ultimately himself.

In some ways I’m glad I read it on my commute because reading it all in one go would have been too frustrating and irritating, what with Syjuco jumping from one thing to another on EVERY page and quotations sprinkled liberally. However, no one can deny that Syjuco can write. His brilliance shines through every sentence and reminded me of why I like to read. It’s just that 300 pages of brilliance is quite hard going. But part of me is very proud that finally we are getting some experimental writing from Asia that is being fully accepted in the West. And Syjuco has highlighted a country that many of us don’t know much about whether it’s history, politics or culture. I was mesmerised by the names that tripped off Syjuco’s pen, the latin names that felt so romantic and tied the Filipino people to their colonial history and religious conversion. It reminded me of Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai where the protagonist travelled to Nueva España to open trade negotiations. I never knew the Phillipines was part of Nueva España until then.

Because Ilustrado is brilliant, naturally there are several bees in my bonnet. One was the extreme nature of most of the characters Miguel comes across. Of course, it’s a novel, so everything will be larger than life, but come on. Take the character of Sadie. There was something about her that was just too much and a little too stereotyped. But then the whole novel was too much including the character of Crispin Salvador. And because it was too much, it was charming. Does that make sense?

And there were lots of references and in-jokes that I, as a non-Filipino, would probably not get. But that didn’t really bother me much and I enjoyed the insights into the pop culture and lifestyle of a new world. It’s just that it felt as though Syjuco was throwing everything he had into his first book which inevitably leaves you exhausted and gasping for breath.

The thing I liked most about Ilustrado is that, as we see in the quote above, he tries to move away from the sentimental and nostalgic novel writing so endemic in Asian and post-colonial contemporary literature. I love reading about Asia just to get in touch with my roots. But I’m really excited about this new direction that we are seeing more and more in contemporary literature. We are moving away from the saccharine, rose-tinted version of history that many diasporic writers can’t seem to get away from. There is nothing wrong with that as I think it’s the first step in trying to understand a culture that is no longer truly ours. We must reconnect with what we know and then branch out. And I think that is exciting.

One thing I am sure about is that Syjuco will go far and I will be eagerly awaiting his next piece of work.

In the meantime, can I direct you to two wonderful posts about Ilustrado by Sasha & The Silverfish and Tony’s Reading List?

I would like to thank the lovely people at Pan Macmillan for kindly sending me my copy of Ilustrado to review.

13 Responses to “Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco”

  1. Mystica Says:

    I doubt my getting to this in the foreseeable future but it does sound a difficult read. Am I being too hesitant and diffident I wonder? I know that we certain books you take it in stages – the beginning is sometimes tough but then you get drawn in. Maybe this is one of those.

  2. Steph Says:

    You’ve definitely sold me on this book! I have seen it pop up on a few blogs, but your review is absolutely the most compelling… I absolutely know what you mean when you start reading a book and you just know it’s going to be great. I feel that way about Midnight’s Children, so I am holding off on reading it because I want to save it.

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    I enjoyed this when I read it ,now after reading the calvino can see the connection in a way ,I can’t wait to see what direction he takes after this wonderful direction ,all the best stu


  4. It sounds as though you enjoyed this book a lot more than I did. I thought the writing was amazing, but I was lost at times. I felt so much was going over my head – I wish I’d had a reading guide to help me.

    I think you are right about Syjuco – I’m sure we’ll hear much more about him in the future.

  5. nymeth Says:

    I love the sound of this, particularly the hints of metafiction! Funny how your comparison to Calvino sold me even though I wasn’t a fan of that book ;)

  6. Simon T Says:

    Great review, Sakura. I’ve had this on my shelf for a few months – I got it because I wanted to read something Filipino, basically, since I love the country (the only place I’ve been outside Europe). You’ve pushed it up my reading pile.. but I have to be in the right mood for this sort of postmodernism. I loved Immortality by Milan Kundera, for instance, but if I just wanted something cosy then it would drive me mad!

  7. novelinsights Says:

    Lovely review. This sounds like something I would enjoy reading on holiday when I’m chilled out and ready to be absorbed in fabulous writing. Hope you had a wonderful break in SL!

  8. chasing bawa Says:

    Mystica: It’s only difficult in the sense that there’s a lot crammed into the novel, but it really is brilliant!

    Steph: I’ve got Midnight’s Children on my shelf and have been meaning to read it for years. Your comment has made me want to read it even more!

    winstonsdad: I think you did better with the Calvino than I did;P Like you, I’m looking forward to what Syjuco comes up with next.

    Jackie: There were several bits where I too got lost and had to go back and re-read. I don’t think this is a novel for everyone, but I agree that a reading guide would have been helpful!

    nymeth: I think bookish people are always drawn to metafiction just because we love the idea of books as much as stories and the physical book itself. So yes, do give it a try Ana!

    Simon T: I’ll have to check out Immortality. I think I’ve only read The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I loved. Interesting to see Phillipines is the only country you’ve been to abroad! Must ask you about that when I see you next!

    novelinsights: Thanks Polly! I think it would make a great holiday read, especially if you are going somewhere sunny!

  9. JoV Says:

    After what you said, I will give this one a go. Many said it’s hard to read, but there aren’t many contemporary books on Philippines, so I am pinning on this one for sure. Great review.


  10. [...] by a Filipino author, which almost seems like reason enough to pick this up. Throw in raves from Chasing Bawa and Sasha & the Silverfish and I was sold. Exciting! My shelves become increasingly [...]


  11. [...] for a second opinion?  Here’s what some others thought: chasing bawa | coypatalagsa | Les Fleurs d’un [...]


  12. [...] “Wow, this is one hell of a literary ride. … As with a lot of very literary novels that probably began in literary workshops/creative writing programs, Syjuco’s novel takes the idea of a novel and tries to subvert the theme.” Chasing Bawa [...]


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