Completed: Ilustrado

Miguel Syjuco
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)

I noticed Ilustrado for its cover first—the striking graphic design turned to face me on the library shelf. The title and author came second, Spanish in sound. But were they?* It was the declaration “Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize” that reeled me in though. That and the Philippine setting. Having realized recently that my reading history has primarily been British (classics) and American (contemporary), I’ve decided to make more of an effort the expand my horizons.

The first question though, may be , is this a Philippine novel? Or for that matter, what does it mean to be a Philippine novel? Although set primarily in the Philippines, it appears that the novel was written in English, rather than translated from Tagalog or a dialect (no translator is indicated). The author now lives in Montreal…but grew up in Manila. Interestingly, it is a question the novel—a story of a writer, looking for another’s story, finding his own—addresses, the mentor speaking to his student:

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 imaginations grow moss. So every Filipino novel has a scene about the glory of cooking rice, or the sensuality of tropical fruit. And every short story seems to end with misery or redemptive epiphanies. And variations thereof. An underlying cultural faith in deus ex machina. God coming from the sky to make things right or more wrong. (207)

Then of course, there’s the question of exoticism. A fictional, aged, author lectures:

‘Of course, we must be read by the world,’ he declares. ‘If they think we’re exotic, give them exotic. But don’t forget the responsibility to portray the realities of our society…’ He flicks absently at a palm frond that tickles his ear. ‘…and the brutal archetypes from life. For example, the richness of our poverty. Boy who loses girl because he cannot win bread for them. Beloved water buffalo dying of inexplicable disease or sometimes run down by the cars of t he rich. Every year, floods destroy everything. And then…’—he raises his hands like a priest announcing transubstantiation—‘and then, the locusts came.’ (162)

Perhaps the question is not so much “what is Philippine literature?” so much as “what do I (the Western reader) expect Philippine literature to be?” I think it fair to say that the Western reader typically expects non-Western literature to be “exotic,” “ethnic,” or full or hardship or examples of how the West has ruined/made great (depending on era/political stance) the local society. This doesn’t seem fair—literature from an individual culture should be inherently of that culture’s concerns, values, mores. (Granted, a culture different from our own may seem “exotic” merely by fact of said differences.) Perhaps it is necessary for literature to travel the paths of what is expected before it can find its own voice. This seems to be the view of the speaker in the first example. On the other hand, traversing the expected path may not be necessary for the finding of  the voice, but for the finding of the audience: the audience must be cultivated before the more difficult, more ‘natural’ voice may be understood.

My impressions of llustrado, were not, however, of a novel attempting exoticism. At the same time, I could not forget that this was set in the Philippines, not because of Tagalog words or landscape, or the  satirized corrupt political system, but for the little details. A construction worker wearing flip flops. A maid in a mint green uniform, fanning her employer. It does not require an exotic setting—at its core, it is a tale of a student searching for the past in order to understand the present—but is informed by it.

The story is told from the perspective—both first person and third, an interesting stylistic choice best understood in light of the concluding pages—of a student, Miguel Syjuco, who is searching for the history of his mentor, Crispin Salvador. As Miguel presses his search, the reader learns not only Crispin’s story— through Crispin’s writings, through Miguel’s interviews with old acquaintances and relatives of Crispin’s—but also Miguel’s. An interesting string of parallels forms, between Miguel’s life and Crispin’s, between Crispin’s history and his novels. At times this made the novel difficult to follow; I kept flipping back to previous passages trying to remember why this event or name sounded so familiar. Interwoven within the narrative are little background stories, heard as news bulletins over a taxi radio, or read in a newspaper headline. Seemingly unimportant, but with enough excitement to keep the reader wondering what happens next, these sub-stories are a constant through the novel. They set the location. They showcase the political corruption Syjuco is satirizing. They contrast against the more personal stories of Miguel and Crispin, while reminding us of the  forces that formed these men.

I never really felt that the style(s) utilized here was “style for style’s sake.” The change of narrators, the multitude of story lines, the quotations from made-up novels, even the use of present tense—which gave an immediacy to the action—all worked together to lead towards, often foreshadowing, the ending chapters. The many story lines also kept me engaged; sometimes I even wished that the fictional novels were real, the little snippets offered were so interesting. There was something a little confusing about the ending of the “background stories”—almost too many options offered, but I think this was deliberate and part of the satire, that suggestion that we never know what is “true” when politicians speak. Overall, however, I found book and ending satisfying, albeit a bit slow at times. Apparently I am a reader who prefers plot to philosophizing!

One side benefit of reading Ilustrado: I learned a bit more about Philippine history. Although I was aware that the US had obtained the Philippines after the Spanish-American war, I had never heard of the Philippine-American War/Philippine War of Independence, which was apparently too “insignificant” to mainland US to be covered in high school history classes. (And most certainly not covered in the Western-based Art & Architectural history classes I had in college!) The novel also illustrates the impact of US policy and culture upon the Philippines (not to mention the Spanish influence). What an excellent reminder of the benefits of reading outside our own cultural sphere.

*Ilustrado is Spanish for “enlightened ones” and refers to the Philippine elite who would travel to Spain for education during the Spanish Colonial period.

4 thoughts on “Completed: Ilustrado

    1. Thank you, both for your kind comment and for stopping by. I hope you’re not disappointed with Ilustrado. It does start a little slowly, but I found once I got into the rhythm of the narrative, it really picked up.

  1. Amanda, I’m truly glad you liked Ilustrado, despite the confusing elements. I’m a bit apprehensive coming to it because I want to love it, since I’m Filipino and rarely do we get to have books published internationally. I have heard a number of non-Filipinos who disliked it, while most Filipinos did. I thought maybe it was too ambiguous for those not familiar with our culture/politics/society? But thank you for proving me wrong. I’m looking forward to reading it more now..

    1. It took me some time to get into it, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it at first. But once I’d read for a while, I became more interested in the characters, in their stories, in what was going to happen next. I would guess that some people don’t care for the style of the narrative, but I thought it effective to the story. I would also imagine that some aspects of the novel are better (more readily) understood by someone of a Filipino background. I’ve seen Ilustrado described as a satire, but I probably didn’t get as much of that feel from the novel as someone who knows more about the politics of the Philippines would. I hope you enjoy reading it!

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