In the Philippines, the word ‘Ilustrado’ refers to a class of native intellectuals who were nurtured by but then revolted against their Spanish colonial masters. It’s a fitting title, then, for Miguel Syjuco’s novel, which is both a dissection of his native land’s strengths and failings and an exploration of one man’s attempt to redeem the mistakes of his life.
Ilustrado‘s narrator is an aspiring author, also called Miguel Syjuco, who returns to the Philippines after the death of his mentor, Crispin Salvador, a fellow Filipino writer-in-exile. Embellishing a first-person narrative with invented blog posts, news reports, biography and autobiography, Syjuco paints a picture of an exuberant but deeply corrupt country, proud of its history but unsure of its place in the world.
Syjuco delights in lampooning Filipino politics, but satire is a difficult weapon to control, and here it has the effect of distancing the reader, making it harder for us to imagine the cartoon-ish political intriguing as a backdrop for the other, more personal, narratives. It’s fortunate, then, that they are welded together at a deeper level, as the story of how Miguel (and, ultimately, Crispin) try to heal past hurts becomes metaphorically the story of the Philippines’ attempts to forge a better future.
Some humility, an acceptance of personal mistakes, Syjuco suggests, are vital in this quest. But so too is a sense of rootedness, a heartfelt feeling for (and again, an acceptance of) one’s own nation as a far from perfect but still loveable homeland.
In less capable hands, self-referential, multi-layered narratives can irritate and distract, but Syjuco proves their worth with a finale that transmutes the novel’s many strands into a magical, dreamlike whole. Fusing a cynical sense of humour with an original take on the universal struggle for salvation, he vindicates the idea that individuals and nations alike can, whatever their faults, become once again illustrious.
First published in Time Out