It takes a while to warm up to Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado. Many readers probably find it hard to read, especially in the beginning. The novel is an intricately woven story within a story that depicts the simultaneous yet parallel biographies of the two major characters, intertwined with a nation’s history.
Less determined readers might give up once they lose their way in the novel’s maze of blog entries, verbatim e-mails, and quoted paragraphs from fictional writings of the main character. But the same confused readers, if they persevered, in the end would be amazed by the skill and genius of the author as he wraps up all the loose ends of this wonderful narrative.
Syjuco’s unusual tale begins with the discovery of the body of veteran and maverick Filipino writer Crispin Salvador in New York’s Hudson River. At first it cannot be established whether the writer killed himself or was assassinated, allegedly due to his forthcoming controversial masterpiece, The Bridges Ablaze, in which he was supposed to expose the dirty secrets of the Philippines’ ruling elite.
Salvador leaves behind a series of clues, including a list of names, but not the manuscript—the very manuscript that was supposed to be the pinnacle of his career and permanently etch his name in his nation’s literary history.
Due to the circumstances of his death, Salvador’s “orphaned” protégée, whom Syjuco named after himself, decides to go home to the Philippines and investigate the real cause of his mentor’s demise. As Miguel narrates the life of the older writer, he also reveals his own journey, which is quite identical with the former in many significant ways. Both come from wealthy and politically powerful families and were able to study abroad, where they picked up liberal ideas that made them thirst for reforms back in their homeland. This is a clear historical allusion to the ilustrados led by Jose Rizal and Marcelo H. Del Pilar, who fought the cruelty of the Spanish colonizers through the power of their pens.
Just like the ilustrados, both Salvador and Miguel possess the unwavering conviction that through literature, change is possible, even in a country like the Philippines which for centuries has been ruled by the elite to which the two authors belonged.