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It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River—taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and only remaining friend, sets out for Manila to investigate.

To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, piecing together Salvador’s story through his poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The result is a rich and dramatic family saga of four generations, tracing 150 years of Philippine history forged under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Filipinos themselves. Finally, we are surprised to learn that this story belongs to young Miguel as much as to his lost mentor, and we are treated to an unhindered view of a society caught between reckless decay and hopeful progress.

Exuberant and wise, wildly funny and deeply moving, Ilustrado explores the hidden truths that haunt every family. It is a daring and inventive debut by a new writer of astonishing talent.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

Miguel Syjuco

8 books112 followers
Miguel Syjuco earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and is completing his PhD at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He received the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and the Philippines’ highest literary honor, the Palanca Award, for the unpublished manuscript of Ilustrado. Born in 1976 into a political family in Manila, Syjuco left the Philippines to become a writer. He currently lives in Montreal with his girlfriend and their two cats.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 330 reviews
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
August 29, 2014
Reading Michael Syjuco's Ilustrado is like eating chopsuey.
1 kg. Main Story Miguel Syjuco going back to Manila to find the truth about Crispin Salvador's death
1/2 kg. Biography in Progress Crispin Salvador Eight Lives Lived by Michael Syjuco
2 cups. Unfinished Manuscript The Bridge Ablaze
1/3 cup. Kaputol trilogy
5 tbs. Interview The Philippine-Gazette.com.ph
2 tps. 1988 Interview in the Paris Review
To taste: Crispin Salvador's email

For me, this is like reading patches of several parallel stories, told in the interviews, novels, polemics, memoirs and poetry. Those individual works were cut into pieces and scattered in the different parts of the book to form an egg mosaic-like story. For somebody like me who have been in this country for 46 years, the parts of this mosaic do not necessarily fit well. Some of those snippets talked about the Marcos era when the main story was set after 9/11 2001 and people were no longer talking about the Marcoses. It is as if the 20ish Syjuco tried to put everything he heard from his coaches or history teacher or read from history book into this 304-page work. Syjuco is a rich kid, an ilustrado himself. After studying in Ateneo (a school for rich people), he studied his masters in the US. Read his Acknowledgement at the end of the book, you will see that there are many people who helped him put up this book and most of them belong to the rich and famous in the Philippine, particularly the Fil-Am, literary world. With those people backing Syjuco, coming up with an novel with a huge scope, spanning a period of 150 years, like this should not be a hard task.

What is Syjuco's objective in writing this novel? For us Filipinos to know who we are? If the answer is yes, why did he have to make this so hard to read? I don't think that the common Filipinos, who more than the schooled ones could have benefited from reading this book, would shell out P325 (~US$7) from their hard-earned money. Is it to win the Palanca and Man Literary Award? Well, he got those already. So, I am waiting for Syjuco if he can still come up with a follow up novel with this grand scope and gimmicky enough to get another nod from Palanca and Asian Man Literary gods.

However, I agree that Filipinos should read this. Many of us complain that there are no books about the Philippines and written by a Filipino worthy of reading. We say that all those best-selling books of Bob Ong and the proliferation of Tagalog romance books are so shallow that they cheapen the standard of Philippine literature. If you are one of these people, I challenge you to read Ilustrado and I know you will no longer complain that there is no book that you will not be ashamed seeing holding and reading in public like when you are sipping your expensive frappe at your favorite Starbucks outlet. Reading Ilustrado will even get you an image of an cultured or cunio Filipino who is not only supporting a homegrown author but also that of being a bit more intellectual than those domestic helps reading Bob Ongs and Precious Moments novels. Too bad that the book was printed in New York so the minimum-wage employees in our publishing companies did not earn anything from this.

Most of my friends here in Goodreads have been singing hosannah in honor of Syjuco. My question is: what now? Did the book make them feel proud that they are Filipinos? My emphatic answer is no. Syjuco showed us who we are. 300 years under the Spanish government ruled by Mexican governors. 30 years under the American government. 3 years under the Japanese emperor. We have a damaged culture and corruption is rampant in our government. More than half of our people are under poverty line. 7 out of 10 Filipinos are experiencing hunger everyday. We all know those, right? We don't need Syjuco and his 7-dollar book to tell us those.

Darn. He even has this Erning, Rocky Isip and Boy Bastos jokes as if Syjuco is ridiculing us while we is laughing all the way to the bank from the proceeds of this book.

But this depends really on one's taste. For one, I always make sure of having 2 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. When I eat out, I normally order a vegetable dish. I first check what the restaurant offers. If there is nothing interesting, I go for a chopsuey. You can never go wrong with one. It has all my favorite veggies in it and if it is cooked the right way, the carrots, pepper, beans, etc should be crispy and the sauce should be a bit sweet if those vegetables are really fresh. Yum yum.

But chopsuey is filling. Ilustrado is a huge book without, sadly, any meaning nor patriotic purpose. Syjuco wasted the opportunity of improving the negative image of his/our country, the Philippines, to the world.
Profile Image for Monique.
498 reviews
October 8, 2010
Five things about this book:

(1) A good dictionary should be a good companion/reference material. I'm a wide reader, and I think my vocabulary is fair because of the nature of my work, but I thought this book had one flowery word too many. Lots of big words, in my opinion meant more to impress than to express.

(2) I didn't want to read more about the sorry state of my country ~ its politics, economy, poverty, and people. When I picked this book, I thought I had a mystery to read about. Instead, what I got was a rehash of the Philippines' recent political upheavals and dramas.

(3) Confusing, confusing, confusing.

(4) But I definitely loved the stories about Erning Isip, the guy from AMA Computer College, and his life's travails. I couldn't help laughing out loud at Boy Bastos' chronicles, as well.

(5) I thought there were some parts that could have been omitted for being irrelevant.
Profile Image for Aldrin.
56 reviews252 followers
August 6, 2017
Miguel Syjuco's "official" Web site is a joke. Entering www.miguelsyjuco.com (a perfectly innocuous URL) on your browser's address bar for the first time, you may be surprised seconds later to find neither the dynamic cleverness of an author Web site like Jennifer Egan's nor the static simplicity of something like David Mitchell's. Instead you'll be treated to an embarrassment of riches, chock-full as it is with blocks of text and images forming a tapestry of memes, and an assault on the senses, particularly on your sense of sight but not, to be sure, on your sense of humor.

MiguelSyjuco.com, as the site's welcome greeting says, is an online fan shrine built by a woman named Vita Nova in honor of Syjuco and his debut novel, Ilustrado. You'll be forgiven for tagging Vita Nova as nothing short of a creep—not least for sending Syjuco a ton of emails, asking him to write her biography, and posting his courteous but evidently worried reply—not because she may very well be just that (a creep), but because she isn't real to begin with. Vita Nova is but one of the characters in the very same book for which she has supposedly put up a loving if LOL-tastic tribute rendered in topsy-turvy HTML. The amusingly amateurish author Web site is, apparently, engineered by none other than Vita Nova's creator, the Montreal-based Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco.

Miguel Syjuco's novel, Ilustrado, is also a joke, even as it streams from a rather unfunny prologue involving the death of a renowned Filipino expatriate writer named Crispin Salvador. 

One February morning in 2002, Salvador's body is found floating on the Hudson river, prompting speculators in his native Philippines to form their conjectures around either murder or suicide. More importantly, though, the incident impels his erstwhile protégé and hamburger buddy, a Filipino expatriate tyro author named Miguel Syjuco (who joins the company of metafictive characters that includes Jonathan Safran Foer in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated and Paul Auster in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, and who shall hereafter be referred to as Miguel, so as not to be confused with Syjuco the author, although of course you'll end up getting confused anyway), to search for the supposedly missing manuscript of Salvador's The Bridges Ablaze (winkingly abbreviated as TBA), a potential holder of the title, the Great Filipino Novel. 

"The reason for my long exile is so that I can be free to write TBA," Salvador, who left Manila on the eve of Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in 1972, told Miguel during one of their numerous intimate conversations. "Don't you think there are things that need to be finally said? I want to lift the veil that conceals the evil. Expose them on the steps of the temple. Truly, all those responsible. The pork barrel trad-pols. The air-conditioned Forbes Park aristocracy. The aspirational kleptocrats who forget their origins. The bishopricks and their canting church. Even you and me." Such goals are so ambitious as to be remarkably facetious, and already you might be snickering. But that's just the beginning.

To read the rest of Ilustrado is to consume a literary salmagundi no doubt palatable to anyone with an appetite for postmodern irony and trickery. Beyond the book's enthralling preliminary pages, which reproduce Miguel's introduction to his biography in progress, Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived, (the subtitle alludes to the deceased writer's epithet, "the panther of Philippine letters") is a medley of paragraphs and sections written in varying styles and perspectives. Excerpts from the aforementioned biography; from newspaper articles; from Salvador's interview with the Paris Review; from political blogs and spam comments; from iterations of corny jokes (yes, there are jokes within this joke) injected with Pinoy puns and malapropisms; and from Salvador's multigenre oeuvre, including his tell-all memoir, irreverent essays with titles like "Why Would a Loving God Make Us Fart?" and "Borges Disappointed by the Internet," pulpy crime novels, a trilogy of supernatural stories for young adults, a quartet of love stories set in Europe, and several books of Philippine historical fiction, take turns alongside Miguel's musings and the italic and oneiric accounts of another narrator, who refers to Miguel as "our protagonist," in making the book, if not what little plot the book has, thicker. 

Amid such confluence of miscellaneous blocks of words and typesetting schemes, it's easy to forget Ilustrado starts with the promise of a plot and that it has a plot. Determined to search for TBA, Miguel returns to the Philippines—less a balikbayan than a revenant—whereupon he embarks on an investigation of Salvador's life, not indifferent to the realization that it parallels his own more visibly the more things he finds out. Concurrent to this is the emergence of an all-too-familiar image of a country populated by politicians, prostitutes, and political prostitutes. The plot, then, with its fragmented conveyance, is a stand-in for the Filipino's continuing identity crisis and the plight of the Philippine nation. And this roman à clef is a joke, an elaborate prank. Its delivery may falter, but the punchline is certainly a doozie, which leads to another certainty: that of the egg on our face. Yours and mine. 

Italo Calvino, one of Syjuco's literary antecedents, along with Roberto Bolaño, David Mitchell, and perhaps Vladimir Sorokin, if only for that one fellatio scene told via a queue of excited moans and grunts, held the belief that literature is "an existential function, the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living." In the book's prologue, Miguel/Syjuco writes, "this book shoulders the weighty onus of relocating a man's lost life." Self-reflexivity and self-consciousness once again blur the line between fact and imagination. As such, Ilustrado is nicely summarized by the antimetabolic relationship between the words fiction and possibilities: The book is an example of a "fiction of possibilities, entwined with the possibilities of fiction." 

Miguel Syjuco has said that he is already hard at work on his next book, which will be a biography of a starlet. The starlet's name? Vita Nova. Her request was granted after all. Fiction and possibilities be damned.

Profile Image for Apokripos.
146 reviews18 followers
July 23, 2010
Blurring Realities
(A Book Review of Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco)

Ilustrado is the ambitious and exceptionally complicated debut novel by Miguel Syjuco that won the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel Category in 2008 and the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize later that year when it was still in manuscript form.

Since news of his prodigious success came out, I can’t help but feel elated, for his triumph is as much ours; his breakthrough is a vindication of sorts on our much neglected and often beleaguered local literary scene as it opens the door to global fiction and foreign audience. And indeed we have arrived. By this sheer fact alone I became in an instant Syjuco’s fan and having to wait for two years just to read his novel doesn’t diminish it one bit, for Ilustrado lives up to the hype and deliver the goods.

The novel centers on the great Filipino author, Crispin Salvador, fished out of the Hudson in New York in 2001. Prolific, celebrated, and despised Crispin, dubbed as “The Panther of Philippine Letters,” was the shining star in the West between the ‘70s and ‘80s before he fell into obscurity. He was last working on a book that was to catapult him back to fame, the controversial yet up to now unseen “The Bridges Ablaze,” exposing the corrupt roots of many powerful Filipino families. The strange circumstances of Crispin’s death leads his young student and protégé, the eponymous protagonist Miguel Syjuco, to investigate whether or not it was indeed suicide as had been reported by the press and the police.

Miguel suspects that Crispin’s death is linked to his final novel, which had mysteriously disappeared. He returns to the Philippines to uncover more things about his mentor, but more importantly, Miguel discovers a lot about himself and what it means to be a young writer who’s left the country.

Part mystery thriller, part historical fiction, part political novel, Ilustrado spans the last 150 years chronicling the Philippines and its people with lush prose, a deluge of quotable lines, hilarious Pinoy-isms and meta fictional meditations on the craft of writing and Filipino Diaspora.

What is truly notable about the novel is the depiction of the dead author Crispin through a meticulous reconstruction of his lifework — a technique called literary bricolage — with morsels in the book excerpts, memoir, interviews, essays, and poetry inserted in between the main narrative thread. This not only rendered the character with three dimensional feel but also gave Syjuco a leeway to explore, with its non-linear structure, the Philippine’s history as it encompasses the late 1800s during the time of the ilustrados, the Philippine Assembly under the US, the Huk rebellion, the Marcos regime up to Y2K. It staggers the mind that Crispin’s pseudo-bibliographies was all made up by Syjuco (the author) himself including a Wikipedia entry and its amusing to know that when he pitched his manuscript to an agent in New York it was declined because it heavily quoted from another author’s works. And Syjuco taking this as a cue realized he’s up to something here.

The question of what is fact and what is fiction lies at the heart of Ilustrado. Earlier in the book, the protagonist mentions of an ersatz Oyster Perpetual that he wears, virtually indistinguishable from a genuine Rolex watch. This serves as the book’s motif and as the novel progresses it increasingly blurs the line of what is real and what is not. Perhaps most noticeable of this is how the author and the protagonist not only happen to share the same name but also some parallelisms from the school they’ve attended up to some degree of familial background.

This theme perfectly reflects the intricate and ingenious structure of the book as it brings together passages from books, articles, blog entries with comments, TV, chismis, Boy Bastos jokes, real history and people, overheard conversations, fabricated footnotes and the narrator’s increasingly phantasmagoric dreams. A disorderly design for our congested and bloated information age for in this present era isn’t the truth fragmented?

As others who have read the novel are bound to complain, the novel doesn’t make sense, that so much is happening, there’s really nothing happening at all. It’s so magulo. Yet when you view and take it in its entirety when you read the novel, all these different things happening in the periphery makes it whole. And this is what’s fascinating and absorbing about it: in every measure it is a true Filipino novel for in our everyday chaos thrives our order.

Reading Ilustrado is a celebration of all things Filipino. For who but us will relish and recognize reading the contained historical references, personalities, analogues, innuendos and “in-jokes”? For all we know the Lupases suspiciously sound like the Lopezes or the Changcos, the Cuangcos, the thinly veiled Reverend Martin seems to be targeted at a charismatic lay leader and the actor turned President Fernando Estregan might refer to you-know-who. Go figure. Yet in all its guises the novel is unapologetic about its Filipino roots and I gave it high praise as it shunned the often hackneyed exoticism some Filipino writers resort to.

In its last pages the book gathers strength and seems to be going to different trajectories. It ends indeterminately, or possibly, in considerable contradicting ways. Then it abruptly stops, sending us to the final, ultimately surprising revelation: an ambivalent yet powerful ending that clarifies, adds a resonance to the supposed disorder skillfully rendered earlier. The book’s conclusion, enough to satisfy the most patient of readers, is a singular achievement in and of itself.

The term “ilustrado” which also means “enlightened,” refers to the Filipinos educated in Europe during the Spanish colonization. They would later foment the revolution of 1986 using the things they’ve learned against their oppressors.

They are the forebears of today’s estimated 100, 000 strong balikbayan, and the country is beckoning them not to wage war but to start the revolution to renewal armed with the experiences they’ve learned from other countries.

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
(Trade Paperback Philippine First Edition, 2010)
306 pages
Started: July 6, 2010
Finished: July 16, 2010
My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Profile Image for kwesi 章英狮.
292 reviews721 followers
May 8, 2011
I don't know why I have to suffer from reading this book, it has a slow beginning, unpredictable ending and added with hifalutin words that can bleed your nose until the last word Syjuco wrote. It was a nice book, unfortunately, for me it was like another Filipino book that serves to criticize what a Filipino is. No changes made, same with Filipino authors (I don't like to mention), wrote the same thing as this book but thinner and more funnier. I don't know if this book really meant for Filipino readers.

In Illustrado, Syjuco created two characters with the same faith and the other one came back to Philippines to search for the manuscript that was lost in the middle of a tragic night. It was sad and very creative, Syjuco portrays the character with deep meaning with words that stands on each corner of the sentence. The Prologue was so amazing that even a reader won't stop thinking of what really happened that night.

It was unexpected that Miguel, as a mentor, went back to the Philippines to witness the past life of Crispin Salvador, a Filipino author, executed and awarded with many awards in literature to execute his greatness. Not only to witness but to discover his true self and the manuscript that fooled him in the end.

It was an epic adding love story in the near end of the story, is he in the middle of rushing the story? The love story was so dramatically ended for a few days that he stayed in Manila. Besides having a bad love life scenario he is trying to secrete his poisonous judgments towards what he observed politically, cultural, failures, and the history of the country, even Filipinos abroad.

The book was a mass of collected journals, interviews, article or any written materials Crispin wrote. It was a mess! Reading in jumble and very confusing. It was in a satire, but I can't find a way to show the wit between his judgement, is he A Filipino or another Filipino who went back oversea to leave his country because of what he observed from them. Did they even studied why Filipino acts like that? Psychologist might answer that as part of social acts, there are terms that we usually used but we usually interpret it in a wrong way. Have he ever tried to mingle with the farmers in the province? Or went outside his boundaries and asked them why?

It was simply judgement, but very destructing for me, maybe not for the others. In 2008 Ilustrado won the second annual Man Asian Literary Prize and Palanca Award for unfinished manuscript. When I heard about it, I was intrigued and can't wait to read it since last year but in the end. Disappointment comes falling hitting my head from time to time. Or maybe I'm still young to accept the truth.

My high school teacher told us that the term 'Filipina' was defined as a prostitute as well as OFW abroad. I forgot the name of the dictionary, but it was one of the worst thing that I heard from my teacher's mouth. Facts are facts.

Rating - Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco, 2 Sweets and the free soul of Crispin. (It was well-written but everything was a mess, it was so confusing the high words and the changing pace made everything worst from the beginning till the end. I want to end this so I did, congrats to me and to my reading buddies. Thanks to my Reading Buddies Krizia [x], K.D. [x] and Kristel.)

Book #93 for 2011
Book #60 for Off the Shelf!
Shelfari - Flips Flipping Pages, May 2011 Discussion

Profile Image for Rav De Castro.
6 reviews2 followers
February 5, 2013
This is some serious crap and waste of time. It's like a know-it-all classmate who just transferred to your esteemed university from a small-town community college who wants to show the world that he knows about stuff. I can believe it won an award. I mean, the Syjucos have money.
Profile Image for David.
Author 26 books170 followers
April 15, 2016
A competent piece of work but not really more than this.

The book had a few problems

~ Stylistically flat. In literary fiction there is an expectation of eloquence...this book approaches this but does not quite make it.
~ Characters are not compelling and/or believable.
~ The variety of source materials should sound like they're from different personalities and they don't really do this. All seems to be the same flat character.
~ Too many pop culture references. The problem with this is that it gives your writing a shelf life of 12 minutes. Lacks depth
~ Psychological observations were trite

I liked the fact that the Philippines are making a showing in the world of literary fiction...not just regionally.

Some may enjoy this work but I was left feeling neither hot nor cold by it...indifferent. Perhaps, the worst condemnation of literary fiction there is.
Profile Image for Jenny Domino.
121 reviews5 followers
December 20, 2014
Oh gosh, I cannot express the relief I felt after finishing the book. First time I felt that way towards reading! Let me explain.

I was on page 19 of the book and I already felt bored. 19 pages of trying to sound smart. Comes out pretentious and overdone.

By the time I reached the middle (I pushed myself to continue reading as I desperately wanted to find a silver lining), I patiently looked for any revelation, for that sense of enlightenment which will justify 200 pages of excerpts from the works of Crispin Salvador, without any proper context or reason for citing them in the first place. I really tried to understand the purpose of it all.

--last 50 pages, I dragged myself to get through it--

--last 10 or so pages, I was mad at myself for reading so slow (I constantly found myself preferring to watch movies than actually reading the book, it just doesn't catch and grip you, still no silver lining at this point)--

Epilogue. There, finally! The twist, that silver lining! Finally, after 300 pages, I now know the point of the novel. But do you really want to drag yourself through all those 300 pages of broken episodes before you understand the novel? I found the style too overbearing, weighing, and as already mentioned, dragging. The episodic style of writing might work for a short story, but not for a novel worth 300+ pages, especially if there is nothing there but random dreams, excerpts, little stories that try to sound deep and wise. Throughout the novel, you can sense that there was a little too much effort put into trying to look "Art"-sy (with a BIG LETTER "A"), smart (what with the obscure vocabulary and a thousand metaphors). Comes out pedantic.

Sadly, still doesn't explain the hodgepodge of dreams, illusions, book excerpts, sentences that purport to be stylish or those that are intended to be used as possible quotes of eager readers. Too much style, too little connection, contextualization, characterization. Citing random excerpts of an author's works does not necessarily let you reveal his character. I understand that it is supposed to make sense at the end, when the whole art of the story is laid out. But certainly, the reader should not have been exposed to such display of pretentiousness up to page 300ish. To be fair, some paragraphs were worth the read, such as the description of the NAIA, the good ending (the ending saved it needless to say), the childhood stories of Crispin and Miguel were also interesting to read, but not enough to make you like the book. Because even if the ending was such a revelation, by that time, after going through such a torturous reading experience, you're just like, "Whew!"

Apart from the ending, another redeeming value can be found towards the end, when different permutations of the ending regarding the stories of Lakandula, Reverend Martin, President Estregan, Vita Nova, and Bansamoro are enumerated. It shows the circus-like character that is Philippine politics and religion, and the lunacy that comes with it. Sadly, right after this, we are plunged into another excruciating, pretentious, artsy-fartsy episode where Miguel goes to Isla Dulcinea.

I mentioned that I was desperate for a silver lining. Probably because it garnered so much acclaim. But wow, I am a little disappointed at all this. I appreciate what the author intended(?) the novel to be. Ultimately, I find it to be a novel about writing, not really of a writer's life. Such can give justice to the different styles, the excerpts. But I am making a guess here. I want to defend the book to myself, in order to understand why it won so much acclaim. But isn't the book supposed to do that for itself?

Last bit: some descriptions of Manila were too exoticized, even inaccurate. Go to page 158, the scene in the cab when the taxi driver makes some nasty words about the politician (Grapes). Very hard to imagine happening in real life. Maybe the author needs to try riding a cab to get a sense of this. His depiction of the Philippines, especially the politics, can be precise. But sometimes, like the taxi driver scene and the part where he gives a "coin" for a boat ride (in what year did a boat ride ever cost a coin?!), the depictions do not feel authentic. At best, the work is ambitious. At worst, it leaves the reader empty-- that is, until the last page. Read it if you are patient enough to last 304 pages, but only to like the last four.
Profile Image for Louize.
426 reviews43 followers
July 26, 2011

The Ilustrados of 19th century Philippines, the “enlightened ones”, were young men born from landowners; educated in Europe; top-hatted; monocled; and Spanish-speaking bucks; with nannies and tutors to run after them. Seemed a harsh truth, but the truth nonetheless. What’s good about these men, despite their higher social status, was that they sought reform through social equality and economic power for our country. It was through their works that injustices imposed on Filipinos by the Spaniards were exposed.

The same may be used to describe the two main characters of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (with a few touch of modernity, of course). Both were born from opulent political families and foreign-educated. In reading, the parallelism and symmetries between Crispin Salvador (the mentor) and Miguel Syjuco (the protégée) was hard to miss. It was so obvious, in fact, that it was difficult to distinguish whose POV I was currently reading at times.

The book opened to the shocking death of the mentor, drowned in the Hudson River. Suicide or murdered was simply irrelevant to the flow of the story. The mystery/ adventure lies in the protégée’s adamant search for the missing manuscript of Salvador’s obra maestra, The Bridges Ablaze. To write a biography of his teacher and mentor, then, was the best way to start in finding where the manuscript is.

“My biography of Crispin will be an indictment of my country, of time, of our forgetful, self-centered humanity.”

Reviewers before me have complained about Syjuco’s affluent use of thesaurus-like words (I concur), which thankfully receded from Chapter 5 onward. This was not an easy book that may be simply read in one sitting; there was no straight-forward narrative. It required a good amount of persistence. And, if patience is truly a virtue… well, I guess it was a due reward that I got in the end.

“Likely a construction worker, one of the millions-strong diaspora indentured by the persuasiveness of dreams.” (In other words –OFW.)

Quoting one of Syjuco’s characters, Ilustrado is a literary bricolage: a pastiche of the narrator's story, excerpts from his biography of Salvador, excerpts of Salvador's writings, blogs by a Filipino literary critic, extracts from an interview with Salvador, emails, news, and the most confusing, the in between actual movement in the characters’ story. Being his first novel, I’m sure he simply would like to pour and cram every ounce of idea he had. A second helping will probably reap more satisfaction. Perhaps, in the future Mr. Syjuco would not try too hard to be literary. Brilliance does not come with more, but with sufficiency.

“I meant you can’t bring an unwritten place to life without losing something substantial… How do we fly from someone else’s pigeonhole? We haven’t. We must. And to do that, we have to figure out how to properly translate ourselves.”

Let me describe this book in my own POV, please bear with me. Half of this book was funny, truly laughable. For in fact, Filipinos do laugh at their own idiocy, whether we are quoted as Erning Isip or Boy Bastos for that matter. Half of it was truly and unrepentantly laughing at me all the while I was reading it. Hard to believe, but I humbly admit to it. This book has a certain element that over-fed and confused me; meanwhile I was thinking that I got it, but I actually don’t. Well, not until I reached the conclusion.

“We are liberated by the multiplicity of conclusions to every unfinishing story.”

Readers, like myself, expect the grand allusions this book may have to our very feverous political actors and their dramas, which they themselves have grandly written and directed. I had a few taste of that, but the entirety of the premise was veered elsewhere. Like most of the Ilustrados from the 19th century, Miguel and Crispin were both intellectuals seeking reform, a new beginning; another chance at life. Thus, makes them the modern Ilustrados. Not political actors, no, not them. But their lives were also full of drama, and nothing less.

“If I could only take one myself, start over without having to fix the things that need to be fixed.”

Profile Image for Tintin.
68 reviews8 followers
March 14, 2011
The scope and breadth of this novel is so mind-boggling I don't even know where to start.

Part of my difficulty reviewing Ilustrado is that I can't use the same yardstick I use for reviewing most fiction. My usual standards-- character dynamics, plot progression, willful suspension of disbelief -- don't matter as much in this book. It’s different. I had to set a different standard.

You'd think that a story covering the lives and family histories of two separate individuals spanning 150 years across three continents, and continuing into the 21st century would take thousands of pages to work. But Syjuco manages the feat in 300 pages, complete with a stark and honest depiction of modern Manila and political and literary commentaries.

Syjuco's portrayal of the madness which is the Philippines strikes close to home. Too close to home at times, I think. The protagonist shares with the author the name Miguel Syjuco, and the real Syjuco also shares with the fictional character the trait of coming from a traditionally rich and political family (his father is a politician allied with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo), among others. I can't help but think this novel is a kind of pseudo-autobiography. Syjuco is indeed the embodiment of the present-day Ilustrado, children of the landed rich who were sent to study abroad to be 'Enlightened.' Now as it was then, they hold the greatest potential to change our country. You can't argue with political clout and economics.

No book review or summary I've read comes close to describing what Ilustrado actually is, so I encourage others to read it for themselves. There are, however, stylistic choices that significantly up the barriers of entry. Ilustrado is not what I'd call accessible. Here are my reasons:

Unabashed literary style
Good prose; overwritten at times. Syjuco is also fond of using 10-dollar words. After a while I gave up and took out a dictionary.(And I never consult a dictionary while reading).

Liberal use of Post-Modern techniques
Prior to Ilustrado I only approached post-modern literature with a meter-long poking stick. Post-modern stories are notorious for being out-there and just plain weird compared to regular stories. Reading it was like a crash course on post-modernist literature as it uses nearly every technique in the post-modernist arsenal. But if you're open to exploring the genre and getting out of your reading comfort zone, it's a rewarding experience.

(As an aside, I looked up post-modernism while reading and was surprised at the number of popular works that could be considered post-modern. The Matrix. Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Inception. Even The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is post-modern!)

Non-linear storyline
The main story is more or less linear, but timelines and settings jump. The prologue ends with the protagonist writing:
"The facts, shattered, are gathered, for your deliberation, like a broken mirror whose final piece has been forced into place." And that's exactly how it is.

Complexity of Narrative
This is not an easy read, the kind you can breeze through in a sitting. It's the kind of book that benefits the most from a second reading. The narrative is like a bundle of knots to be unraveled -- close and deliberate observation is required.

Syjuco's depiction of the Philippines is at times dark, at times jokingly funny, but always rings true. It's like holding a polished mirror. Which is why I think Filipinos above all should read this book. Only a Filipino could catch most of the oblique references and see the jokes for the self-deprecating slurs they really are. We laugh at these jokes because they contain truth, but when we laugh, we are laughing at nothing but ourselves!

It's not a perfect read. I didn't like all of the techniques he used or thought all parts of the book interesting. But considering his background, I admire Syjuco's courage to speak out his political opinions, no holds barred. The picture he paints of present-day Philippines isn't pretty, but it's close to reality. Ilustrado a modern-day descendant of Rizal's novels. And despite myself, I do love the post-modern twist. I love how the book melded both fact and fiction to the point where it becomes impossible to tell the two apart.

This bold novel gets 5 stars from me.
Profile Image for Kristel.
159 reviews53 followers
July 26, 2011
Ilustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres--murder mystery, satire, interviews from The Paris Review, everything but the kitchen sink. Miguel Syjuco's brassy debut novel turns on its head the first accusation thrown in the face of every expat writing a novel set in the Philippines: "Just how authentic are you?"

Reveling in the flimsy divide between the true and made-up, Syjuco names his protagonist--a listless, wannabe writer in self-imposed exile--after himself. Aldrin of FullyBooked.me points out that other postmodernists like Auster and Safran Foer have created protagonists that they have named after themselves, but this device takes on a more political dimension here. Miguel Syjuco's surname, after all, is a potent one; his own father is a incumbent Iloilo congressman. It practically invites speculation and chismis, since the novel's Miguel also comes from a family of politicians. Could (and should) the reader conflate Miguel's ambivalence about the burgis class he is a part of with the writer's own views? The book brazenly invites these types of questions and more.

Syjuco crams in a distressing number of conceits here, everything from the complicity of the moneyed elite in the sorry state of Philippines, the inherent vacuousness of "intellectual" conversations during book launches, the increasingly grotesque bread and circuses orchestrated for the consumption of the masses. Ilustrado mocks postmodernism even as it wallows in it, going through the techniques like a checklist: bricolage, metafiction, black humor, irony, intertextuality, pastiche. One is tempted to make jokes about having more tricks than a hooker.*

But while accusations of bloat is a fair one, this novel is most certainly not a gimmick. Some parts were handled clumsily (like Avellaneda's blog commenters and the entire length of Miguel's misguided infatuation with a girl he met in a bookstore) but there are layers within these techniques, becoming clues that lead to a final, mind-bending revelation.

Read on my blog
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews161 followers
March 18, 2013
Ilustrado is a term for the new, young Filipinos alive with promise. They're movers and shakers with immense potential. Ilustrado the novel is about one such individual, the writer Crispin Salvador, whose story is told in a long ribbon of poems, memoirs, interviews, and fragments of novels and essays. This treasure is collected and presented for us by the writer Miguel Syjuco who returns to the Philippines following Salvador's untimely death in order to uncover truths about the man who'd been both mentor and friend. As narrative it becomes a novel of an odyssey home and the rediscovery of heritage for the young Miguel while at the same time the interwoven fragments of Salvador's writings form a family saga reaching back to the mid-19th century.

To describe it this way makes it sound interesting, but it's not. I couldn't develop a stake in this novel. I found it terribly tedious. Miguel's story, especially, seemed artificial to me and Syjuco didn't make me think I should pay attention, look for import. His return to the Philippines reminded me of the popular 80's novels of alienation, Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City. The young search for experience. Salvador's story was a shotgun pattern and difficult to follow. Failing to find a clear path to significance and what I look for in fiction, I didn't follow too closely. It's an ambitious novel, I think. And it's impressive in that Syjuco had to create the author voice of Crispin Salvador and sustain it throughout the book as well as that of the narrator Miguel.

It's still early in the year but Ilustrado may prove to be 2013's big disappointment. The fault is most likely mine. We make a team, the reader and book And it may simply be that I failed to hold up my end of the deal.
Profile Image for Bennard.
36 reviews11 followers
August 22, 2012
from The Book Hooligan

There are only three truths. That which can be known. That which can never be known. The third, which concerns the writer alone, truly is neither of these. - Crispin Salvador

The Philippines is a country unlike any other. Our trajectory in history has been decided, for more than 300 years, by foreigners who colonized us. This, in turn, made us search and question our identity and place in history. Should our norms, practices, and culture be Asian, European, or American? In whose footsteps do we follow and what standard should we adapt? The answer, I guess, lies in our mixed heritage. We have in our country a mixture of different identities that converge to create our own. We have a political system that we share with our American colonizers but entrenched in this political system is a feudal relationship between the politicians and the electorate that we got from our Spanish colonizers; our cuisine and culture is deeply Spanish but we are quickly leaning towards an Americanized culture as history moves on; and our respect for tradition and authority is a symbol that, even if we have been Westernized by America and Spain, we are still rooted in Asia.

Thus it is imperative that we, the Filipinos, should learn about our country and our shared history. But learning 300+ years of history is a tiresome endeavor as everybody experienced in our high school years. Plus a year of studying Philippine History, aside from being boring, is insufficient if you want to learn about the underlying conditions, the implications, and the nuances of Philippine society then and now.

Isn't there a way to make the learning of such subjects concise yet entertaining? Enter Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. A book that attempts to squeeze 150+ years of Philippine history into 300+ pages. A mean and ambitious endeavor especially for a first novel by a writer.

Ilustrado is a novel that tells about the life and death of Crispin Salvador, a self-exiled writer living in America, through the eyes of Miguel Syjuco, his protégé and our narrator (who is also the author of the book). Miguel is searching for the lost manuscript of Salvador, which is supposed to be the latter's magnum opus, and he is compelled to come back to the Philippines to search and to investigate. Along the literary journey, the main narrative is interposed with stories that Salvador has written. These include the story of Dulce, a tomboyish girl living in a seemingly magical Manila; Cristo Salvador, Crispin's grandfather, who is a major figure in the Philippine-American War; Antonio Astig, a crime writer investigating serial killings in Manila; and many other characters that are not part of the main narrative but was included in the attempt to portray every facet of Filipino life.

And Syjuco explored many themes in his ambitious work. He portrayed the Filipino in varying situations. He explored the Filipino in exile; the Filipino diaspora; the reluctant hero that resides within us; the corruption that has trickled down from the past to the present; the unchanged political system; the disparity between rich and poor; the sad situation of the youth today; and many more representations, situations, and trends in Filipino society both past and present which are mostly negative. It is a hard truth to swallow but it is the reality that we face and Ilustrado is not at fault for pointing this out.

Ilustrado is an ambitious work. Reading it reminds me of my experience reading Bend Sinister, one of the early works by Vladimir Nabokov. I think it represents the stage in which the writer writes in order to make an impression on other people. A stage where words are flowery, concepts are too abstract, and understanding the work does not flow naturally. So I describe Ilustrado because reading it requires a dictionary and the repetition of certain passages to interpret the text more fully. But it does not hide the fact that Ilustrado is a work of brilliance even if there are moments when a reader does not like what he is reading.

And, at the end of the novel, the reader will be more surprised. This may be the only moment when I doubted Syjuco's brilliance. Was the ending a clichéd one, one which is created to just wow the readers and create a plot twist at the end? Or was it a deliberate ending that was thought of at the book's creation and which serves a higher purpose than surprising the reader? In the end, after reading the final chapters again, I find that it may have served a higher purpose than shock value and my faith in Syjuco was restored.

I do not know if Ilustrado will become a classic in Filipino literature but I will never contest the fact that it is a worthwhile read and it is worthy of attention. In between the covers, I learned and relearned many things about the history of these 7,107 islands we know as the Philippines and that is not a bad thing.

Rating: 8/10

Profile Image for Lit React.
10 reviews3 followers
October 16, 2010
It's a common complaint that the special effects in movies today are extraneous, explosions and computer graphics inserted into a narrative simply because the director/studio can. Filipino writers in English (IMHO) have the tendency to be the Jerry Bruckheimers or George Lucases (I still love Star Wars though) of literature. They are skilled and they can write and they are hell bent on proving these facts by using every special effect in their writing arsenal.

This penchant for writing FX is on full display in Ilustrado - multiple texts, multiple authors/readers, multiple timelines (via multiple texts), multiple obscure dreams; all topped off with drugs, sex and rock and roll. It sounds kind of cool at first, just like all the gee whiz special effects are fun to watch at first. But ultimately getting through it all is kind of tiring.

Ironically, Ilustrado itself is aware of the tendencies of Filipino writing, which it describes as "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."

There are fulfilling moments in Ilustrado, quiet moments when the writing FX ebbs slightly, when the language shines. Particular highlights for me were Crispin's description of the doomed Philippine cavalry marching to war as well as the occasional wry observations of Miguel, "Cliches remind and reassure us that we're not alone, that others have trod this ground long ago."

It's hard to appreciate these quiet moments though as they are constantly drowned out by the literary fireworks and explosions which Ilustrado revels in.
Profile Image for Elatsoe Stan.
138 reviews13 followers
December 9, 2010
This book can be probably best described as an encyclopedic narrative encompassing most of what that genre entails - which would mean not only the 'fun' stuff like the different voices and media, but also the sometimes frustrating stuff - like digressions, obsessive inclusive of details, etc. I feel too it may also be a ghost story, in more ways than one. Because part of it takes on the voice of a young and inexperienced writer, there are parts of this book that are ridiculously (though in my opinion deliberately) overwritten. Still overall this book made me laugh out loud and stays true to the various media it presents, especially blogs and political writing and reporting.

It is one of the more ambitious novels I've read, which means that it manages to do a lot but also leaves some aspects not completely and satisfyingly resolved, which is not always a bad thing. It is also one of the most self-conscious books I've read, which to me flaws an otherwise decent story (and for me story is always paramount). Still, especially if you are interested in the Philippines or Fil-Am literature, this is worthwhile, good for some laughs, often thought-provoking, and a fun read.
Profile Image for Shannon .
1,221 reviews2,164 followers
October 13, 2012
The protagonist of Ilustrado is a young man and would-be writer called Miguel Syjuco (henceforth, I will refer to the character as Miguel and the author as Syjuco), originally from the Philippines who has lived in Vancouver and now New York, who on the discovery of the apparent suicide of a famous literary writer and fellow-expat, Crispin Salvador, goes back to his home land on a bit of an investigative mission. He seeks to find the three black boxes that contained the manuscript that Salvador was working on, The Bridges Ablaze, which was expected to blow wide open the ruling class of the Philippines and expose all their corruption and hypocrisy.

Miguel is working on a biography of the writer, and arranges to meet with people who knew Crispin, to get a better idea of the man he'd known personally, a mentor at the university. He doesn't think it was suicide, but he is not looking to find a murderer. Instead, he slips back into Manila and back into his old life, clubbing with friends, snorting copious amounts of cocaine, and learning some little truths about Crispin Salvador along the way.

Ilustrado is concerned with a few key themes: authenticity (can an expatriate write authentically about their home country?), identity, and what makes a writer great - the criteria for being a national literary icon. It is also a portrait of a country - the Philippines - and a city, Manila, in particular. And in exploring these themes, Syjuco is successful. But wow is there a lot going on here! It has been compared to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas - which I haven't read yet - and even Ulysses (which, like everyone else in university, I gave up on), for its experimental nature, its tampering with form and structure - "subverting" the very idea of a novel, is what comes up on pretty much every review written about this book. In that sense, it's certainly interesting, and complex, and unlike your standard book. So, Syjuco turns the concept of the novel inside-out, and pulls apart the commonly-held (apparently) expectations of what a south-east Asian, or Filipino, book should be like. In a past conversation between Miguel and Salvador, Crispin says:

"First step, get over it, man. I forget which jazz man said that it takes a long time before you can play like yourself. Be an international writer, who happens to be Filipino, and learn to live with the criticisms of being a Twinkie. Anyway, you real home country will be that common ground your work plows between you and your reader. Truly, who wants to read about the angst of a remote tropical nation? Everyone's got enough of their own, thank you very much. Angst is not the human condition, it's the purgatory between what we have and what we want but can't get. Write what you know exists beyond that limited obsession. For now that may include the diaspora, the Great Filipino Floorshow. Fine. But listen, of all those things we Pinoys try so hard to remember, what are those other things that we've tried successfully to forget? Figure that out and write about that. Quit hiding behind our strengths and stan beside our weaknesses and say, These are mine! These are what I'm working to fix! Learn to be completely honest. Then your work will transcend calendars and borders Goethe called it World Literature. He said, 'National era of Weltliteratur.' He said it's up to each of us to hasten this development. How long ago was that? Or, coming full circle, now take Auden's advice: be 'like some valley cheese, local but prized everywhere.'" [p.221]

Suffice it to say, I rather love that entire paragraph. Not only does it speak to the themes of the book, but also that Syjuco himself is in the exact same position: a Filipino who currently lives in Canada (Montreal), who has lived in the U.S. and Australia, writing a novel about his home country and bound to face the exact same criticisms that Salvador faces in the book. In effect, by incorporating the very criticisms into the story, he heads them off at the pass. By not writing a typical Filipino novel (I don't even know what that would look like but I'm sure it exists), nor one that is typically Western - though it definitely leans in that direction - and by questioning the very arguments that commonly crop up in debates over whether a writer is "true" to their country, he successfully ducks the usual arguments and, in so doing, rewrites the debate. When you shine a spotlight on something that likes to cloud itself in rhetoric, it's forced to stand still and examine itself. Which is exactly what Syjuco does here.

I started reading this without knowing it was an experimental novel, and without the kind of academic background I felt Syjuco was speaking to. It opens with a prologue that reads like an introduction to a famous writer, a condensed biography, designed to convince you that Crispin Salvador was a real person - and it's certainly very convincing (when the book was released, there was even a fake Wikipedia page to back it up). The story itself is a mix of straight narrative told from Miguel's first-person present-tense perspective, excerpts from Salvador's many novels and his ridiculously long autobiography, The Autoplagiarist, and from Miguel's biography-in-progress. There are also some blog posts followed by comments, a series of Filipino jokes, and sections about Miguel in third-person, as if someone were watching him, or rather, writing him as a character.

At first, because of that intro, I toyed with the idea of Salvador being a real person, but the first story excerpt put that quickly to rest - from a novel called Manila Noir, it was so cheesy and satirical (and badly written) that it was immediately apparent Salvador was more of a metaphor (for Filipino writers and literature) than anything else. And that sense of humour is apparent throughout the novel, popping up here and there amongst the political observations, the conversations with self-assured literati and upper-class young adults, and in the self-deprecating themes themselves.

My eyes alight on the garish cover of Bulgar: the compulsory image of a half-naed buxom girl. It's the latest artista to be seen everywhere: Vita Nova. She throbs on the page. The holes of her tiny torn T-shirt strategically display her heaving cleavage and sucked-in stomach - she's dressed like a rape victim, though her coquettishness is unflappable, as if her sole means of power. She has struck the pose of the latest dance craze, the Mr. Sexy Sexy: back arched to thrust out her rump, hands on springy knees, face held up to smile and blow kisses. A large crucifix pendant hangs around her neck. Nestled blissfully in her rolling valley, Christ holds out his arms to skim his fingertips on her breasts and lolls his head in rapture. [p.123]

I tend to find these kinds of books too clever for their own good, and sadly Ilustrado was no exception. The choppy narrative took quite a while to get used to, and many of the excerpts were a lot weaker than the actual Miguel-Salvador story. There was so much going on, so many themes crammed in, that it got terribly crowded. The ending was clever, though very sad, but explained why there were so many parallels between Miguel and Salvador, but in ending it that way, it rather robbed everything that came before of its significance. That said, there were things I enjoyed about it - little things, mostly, like the humour mentioned above, or Miguel's offered insight of what it's like being a foreigner in another country, and his perceptions of the Filipino stereotype:

My seatmates [on the plane to Manila] glance at me as if I were a foreigner. I save my Tagalog words for the proper time, to surprise them with what we share. Their accented imperfections remind me of my own, like that time in class, my first day at Columbia, when I pronounced "annals of history" as "anals of history" and how I'd wanted to flee the room, though nobody had seemed to notice. I eavesdrop on my countrymen, on their tentative English spoken to the cabin crew, never quite perfect despite years in the West: f's still often traded for p's, vowels rounded, tenses mixed, syllables clipped - only the well-practiced Western colloquialisms wielded with conviction. Like those phrases, we're a collection of clichés, handy types worn as uniforms over our naked individuality. We are more real than that philosophical conceit of humanity as the milieu of light: we are the milieu of seat. Our industriousness, our inexpensiveness, two sides of our great national image. That image the tangible form of our communal desire for a better life. Someone kicks the back of my seat as a reminder to quit being so profound. [p.25]

While any investigation Miguel might have been thinking of making into Crispin's death is abandoned - and you actually forget that side of things, what with everything else going on and all the excerpts that distract you from the main plot - we do learn more about Salvador as the story progresses. It can be tricky keeping his history and Miguel's past separate, considering the similarities, and it became almost farcical - no, definitely a farce - to find out about all the things Salvador had written over the course of his life. Aside from a children's fantasy trilogy, a series of noir detective books set in Manila, essays, his monstrous autobiography, a novel called The Enlightened which was very hard to follow, Salvador also wrote plays, we learn towards the end of the book. Not just plays, but musicals. And not just musicals, but disco opera!! Hilarious.

One of the side characters, a university student Miguel meets in a bookshop called Sadie (another parallel - Sadie was the name of the white woman, a photographer, whom Crispin loved and who he had a daughter with, Dulcinea), expresses her love for books, which resonated with me (obviously):

"I only buy books because they're a justifiable expense - you know, acceptable retail therapy, like classical music CDs. Other girls buy shoes, I buy books. [...] I don't even get to read all of them. They're more like the best interior decoration. And I love knowing they're there. Like infinite possibilities, you know? That's why bookstores have become so popular these days. Guilt-free consumerism." [p.180]

Manila itself is a character in the novel, though one that only shows one face: shady, dodgy, corrupt, dirty, with a huge divide between rich and poor. Miguel comes from a wealthy political family, as does Crispin Salvador - one of their many parallels - and he mixes in those circles. His time in Manila is spent in a bubble, around which are several ongoing current events in politics, crime and corruption which themselves are such stereotypes that they can only be honest reflections of what it's like in Manila.

But this isn't a character-driven novel. It's a theme-drive one, and for as successful as it is in meeting its aims, it was a real slog to read and, peppered with references that I mostly missed, highly ambitious. I wouldn't call it pretentious - its tone, its self-deprecating humour, and the honest integrity of its themes, as well as Syjuco's style, all save it from being snobby, smug, or wanky. But for as much as I enjoyed elements of the book, and admire Syjuco's aims - and, even, respected the execution of them - I could not find myself genuinely enjoying the book, or even liking it all that much. It just couldn't resonate with me on a personal level, and with so much going on, I couldn't focus on one thing long enough to make the kind of connection that enables a book to leave a lasting impression.
Profile Image for Dante.
80 reviews16 followers
May 24, 2013
Ilustrado is a novel by Miguel Syjuco. (Spoliers ahead!)

Honestly, I didn't understand the story very much. It’s fragmented, and the author is very verbose. I only began to sort of grasp the whole unity of the novel when it was about to end. The twist in the ending reminded me of the twist in Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. I didn't quite expect it.

From what my feeble mind was able to gather, the story is about a young writer who loses his mentor. The latter’s death is mysterious. No one knows if it's suicide or murder. To make sense of his teacher's fate, and hopefully solve the mystery, Miguel, the protagonist, returns to the Philippines to interview people from his teacher's past -- a sister, a friend, a former friend, and a rumored daughter. At the same time, he writes down Crispin's biography.

But, as I've hinted, there's a twist near the end. (Again, spoiler alert: Stop reading this if you don't to know what it is.)

There's another mystery Miguel wants to solve, and that is to find Crispin's "missing" novel, The Bridges Ablaze, which is supposed to be his last great work. The novel is supposed to achieve what few literary works in the past have achieved for the country.

We find out in the epilogue that, actually, Crispin didn't die, but Miguel! He drowned in the Pasig River following a typhoon. What we are reading is actually the story Crispin is writing. In an effort to make sense of the abrupt and tragic death of his former student, he writes a story that explores what might have happened during Miguel's last days. In effect, he tries to make sense of his own life. Miguel’s death shakes Crispin up and compels him to rethink his life's trajectory. He finally decides to go home to the family and country he has alienated (he was on a self-imposed exile for many years), and hopes to be reconciled with the daughter he betrayed. The Bridges Ablaze was apparently unfinished and was eventually destroyed.

So that is roughly the structure of the story.

There are a lot of things going on in this novel. It’s a story about a young writer who goes on to make sense of the death of his old mentor, and in the end, it is revealed to us that actually, it was Miguel who died, and that the novel is actually about Crispin trying to make sense of Miguel’s death and in effect his (Crispin’s) own life. But it’s also a story that offers us a glimpse of Philippine history. Inserted between the narrative of the story are Crispin’s memoirs, and through them we are able to peek into his past: His family originated from Bacolod. They were probably Spanish mestizos, and they own vast areas of lands. They lived through the time of the Americans and the Japanese occupation, got exiled during the Martial Law, and thrives in the modern administration (his grandparents enter politics). Finally, it’s also a story that seeks to present the ugly truths in our society, from corruption in government and business to corruption in culture and families.

I’m not sure if I like the story. It’s very dark and gloomy. I can’t understand Crispin’s philosophy. What is he trying to achieve with literature? I also have the sense that Miguel, too, is a bit lost and confused. What is he searching for? Where is he going?

Miguel is also quite critical of religion, Christianity in particular. But I guess that’s not a surprise, since he is after all an atheist. He sees religion as one of the causes of the country’s problems. But I think what he is really describing is hypocrisy among some religious people. Nevertheless, he has a very negative attitude towards religion, and does not see the sacredness of religious objects. His atheism is also quite strange. He doesn’t believe that there’s such a being as God, but it seems he thinks he should thank someone transcendent for the happiness he sometimes feels. But maybe I just misread him.

And the jokes, most of them are crass. I think that simply reflects bad taste. Moreover, there’s a lot of cussing in the dialogues.

“Ilustrado” seems to refer to Crispin. But I think that label means more than his being an “enlightened” intellectual. It also means that his reflection on Miguel’s death “enlightened” him about what the important things in his life really are.
Profile Image for Karina Vargas.
310 reviews68 followers
November 5, 2019
Ilustrado : 2,5 estrellas.

El famoso escritor filipino Crispín Salvador es hallado muerto en las profundidades del Río Hudson, en Nueva York. La mayoría de las personas coinciden en que se trató de un suicidio, ya que últimamente él se había convertido en una figura controvertida para la sociedad de Filipinas, alguien soberbio y ambicioso por demás. Pero Miguel Syjuco, único discípulo y amigo de Crispín, no lo considera así e incluso piensa que pudo haberse tratado de un asesinato, especialmente porque sabe que se encontraba escribiendo un manuscrito, que según sus propias palabras, iba a ser su vuelta a la fama, su obra maestra, y que develaría secretos de varias familias poderosas. Así el joven se propone escribir la biografía de su fallecido amigo y emprende un largo viaje para averiguar qué fue lo que sucedió en realidad.

Me llevé una decepción con este libro. Si por la descripción previa alguien pensó que la trama tendría tintes policiales (alguien = yo), no pueden estar más equivocados. Aunque ese no fue el problema. Empecemos por lo bueno.
La redacción es buena, hay coherencia y cohesión, y la historia es interesante. Cuando hay suspenso, sabe cómo manejarlo y mantenerlo.
En mi opinión, el problema es el estilo que el autor eligió para contarlo. La novela está escrita a pedazos, con fragmentos que se siguen unos a otros, ya sea de la biografía en progreso, de anécdotas de Crispín o del propio Syjuco (su alter ego), noticias de periódicos, comentarios de sitios de internet, entrevistas con familiares, su historia de vida, un narrador externo que se enfoca en Syjuco, relatos de locutores de radio o presentadores de televisión, trozos de las distintas obras de Crispín, bromas populares; un sinfín de escritos desordenados, algunos sin referencia o sentido alguno más que estar allí, que no contribuyen en nada con la trama principal.
De esta manera también aparecen y desaparecen personajes, de los cuales muy pocos terminan siendo relevantes.

Entiendo cuál fue la idea del autor al optar por este estilo, y admito que es bastante original. El propósito es tratar de ilustrar con un mosaico de retazos quién fue este famoso escritor que ha fallecido, y a su vez reflejar la vida de los emigrantes y exiliados de Filipinas, criticar su historia política y cultural, la corrupción, etc. Suena muy lindo así planteado, pero la ejecución no les queda bien a todos. La trama nunca termina de asentarse por completo, y tantas intervenciones que no profundizan en los hechos terminan por confundir. Hay muchas referencias locales de las que me sentí excluida, (aunque debo aclarar que toda la parte política no me interesa mucho en general), no fue ameno para alguien que no conoce sobre el tema.

Por todo esto, no me fue posible conectar con la historia ni con los personajes, salvo con la historia de Erning y su descendencia (parte de los chistes populares). Creo que en más de una ocasión estos fragmentos fueron la única razón por la que seguí leyendo.

Hacia el final se intenta dar un giro, generar un impacto, pero creo que es demasiado tarde.

Ilustrado es una novela ambiciosa, escrita en forma de mosaico, que termina por confundir y distraer al lector. En mi opinión, la introducción continua y desorganizada de textos con el sólo propósito de entretener (o no), no permiten llevar un hilo conductor, por lo que por muchos momentos te perdés, casi adrede, hasta que vuelva a aparecer ese fragmento con cuya historia relativamente te conectaste. Tal vez si al menos hubiese tenido familiaridad con el contexto histórico- político, el resultado hubiese sido diferente. En fin, una buena idea, mal ejecutada.
Recomendable para quienes conocen o les gustaría conocer un poco de historia política y social filipense; al menos les va a resultar más ameno.
Profile Image for Don Jaucian.
134 reviews34 followers
September 20, 2011
There is no arguing that Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado is a well-written, amazing piece of work. Amazing in the sense that it boldy delves into post-modernism; a dizzying pastiche of Philippine History as seen through an outsider’s eyes. Because no matter how you position it, Syjuco’s Philippines is the Philippines as seen by balikbayans, OFWs and expats. There’s nothing really new. And what is there to tell anyway? Corruption, sleazy politicians, wayward youth and lost heritages. Is that all there is? Is that the underbelly of our slowly decaying country?

Ilustrado’s Crispin Salvador aspires to write the new Noli Me Tangere, a brilliant piece of literature that will set the country ablaze. The book opens with his death and his student Miguel narrates the rise and fall of the “Panther of Philippine Letters”. Crispin Salvador seems to be a mix of the country’s great writers. His works hint influences of Nick Joaquin and F Sionil Jose. Miguel returns to the country to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his mentor and the missing manuscript of Crispin’s last book. What follows is an exploration of Philippine Culture from colonial times, American and Japanese invasion to the current shit-infested city scapes of Metro Manila.

Scattered throughout the book are passages from Crispin’s works, snippets from interviews, text messages and a running gag about Ateneo-La Salle-AMA that were just so bad for my taste. It’s a novel about the Philippines for foreigners. That’s what Ilustrado is, a brave work that mostly burns as ‘burgis angst’ that we see in countless blogs of rich kids everywhere. Parts of the book rife with this ‘angst’ is exhausting.

What Ilustrado mines brilliantly is the position of literature in our country. Is it still relevant? Can it ignite a revolution? These are the questions that I think are forgotten by young writers these days. Most of them harbor westernized ideals, heavily influenced by writers abroad. “Nobody cares,” one character in the book says. Syjuco places his hope in modern day Ilustrados, those who long for the warmth of their country while embellished in winter and cold dinners just to save their families from the suffocating air of poverty.
Profile Image for Jinky.
538 reviews8 followers
August 4, 2010
Talk about art reflecting life! The fictional character is named after himself (author)... exactly Miguel Syjuco. An outlandish concept to me and part of the genius this book offers ... the confusion is a foreshadow of telling you to prepare yourself for a brain workout! Yes, this book is definitely a find that challenges the brain (see my blog title description). Pull out your dictionary because Mr. Syjuco, both the author and character (haha), throws out many fancy words. After all, he has to prove that he is among the elites educated abroad like those back in the 1800s that returned to the Philippines to aid in the revolution that ousted Spanish control. Hence, through the title Ilustrado, defined in the book as enlightened ... the literati ...the educated class... calls out to the 21st century expatriates and wonders if they will return back home to aid their vulnerable native country now! Thus, this book explores the satire chaos of the Philippine politics. A biting look into its governance, migration, work, sex, poverty, and so on. I must warn you that it is full of such Filipino nuances that much might go over your head ... it did for me and I'm a Filipino! Granted I've lead an ignorant life of what's it is really like back in the Philippines now. Funny, am I then one of those expatriates and so I should do something for my native country? Crap!! --Anyway, congratulations to Mr. Syjuco, the author, for winning The Man Asian Literary Prize. A prideful boast on my part ... yeay, Filipinos can write!
Profile Image for Elliot Ratzman.
516 reviews67 followers
January 4, 2013
My book club did not like this book, yet it won the Asian Man prize two years before it was published and there was talk of a Nobel nomination for this young author’s first novel. It is a difficult, fragmented pomo book, consisting of seemingly random arrangement of the fiction, essays, autobiography, jokes and biography of a made-up Filipino author living in NYC, teaching at Columbia. His biography is being researched by another Filipino writer-in-exile, also from a well-connected Manila family who shares the name with the actual author of Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco. In our world, reviewers raved, and there is much for the heavy reader: wry literary references to Proust, Borges, Delillo, Bellow, etc. The author is skewing both academic literary culture while pasting a fast-paced picture of the history and political cultures of the Philippines. Is this a send up of angst diaspora literature by showing us that national lit has no truth, no center? A masterpiece; but why bother reading it?
Profile Image for La Sorciere.
148 reviews58 followers
October 3, 2013
Oh my God. Is this the best novel done by a Filipino writer? (as the cover reviews say) Ohhh god, when I read that on the back cover I was literally like O_O. The amount of ass kissing CONTAINED in that single sentence? Fuck.

Okay, but then again why am I not that surprised? Filipinos readers and writers are not exactly known in the literary world for being a group of virtuosos (unlike Japan's Murakami and Ishigawa).
But what the hell am I expecting from a country where "fine literature" *ahem* books like "Bakit Di ka Crush ng Crush mo" "Precious Hearts Romances" and "She's Dating the Gangster" are consistently making a killer in the bestsellings lists?

Dear Filipinos I hope to god that Miguel Syjuco isn't the best writer that you can offer, Cause if so... Then you are in deep SHIT.

Yes Me XXX
Profile Image for Frankh.
845 reviews161 followers
March 25, 2015
The premise of the entire novel was intriguing: a very famous Filipino writer by the name of Crispin Salvador was found dead, his corpse floating in the Hudson river.

The manuscript of his final book The Bridges Ablaze is gone as well, a book that will expose the crimes of many ruling corrupted political families in the Philippines. His apprentice Miguel, an aspiring writer, sets out to Manila to investigate and untangle the mysteries surrounding the Salvador family, going back as far as three generations. In doing so, Miguel has to re-visit his mentor’s poetry, interviews, novels, polemics and memoirs, and this made Ilustrado not a linear work of fiction as a reader may hope it would be.

In fact, as much as there is a consistent plot being followed, the entire novel is so fragmented that it’s visually challenging to read. Syjuco has invented Crispin Salvador as a prolific writer and therefore quotes ‘excerpts’ from the fictional author’s works. Reading this book required time because of the explorative way it was written. I don’t think anyone can consume it in just a few days. By its very definition, 'ilustrados' are ‘enlightened’ Filipinos who lived abroad and were able to understand firsthand what centuries of colonization have done to our nation, and so they seek for reform in an intellectual sense. Jose Rizal is one. And so are the characters Crispin and Miguel in this book. Most of the time it’s difficult to distinguish whose story it truly is, and about halfway through the novel, I realized that it is every Filipino’s story; all of us who never stop yearning for progress in a country with a decaying economy, dirty politics and hypocritical Christian values.

Syjuco’s prose is beautiful in the most harrowing and irritating sense. The passages are filled with feelings familiar with a Filipino individual, with all the aches, desires and disillusions we share as a colonozied nation, and yet the prose manages to alienate a more critical reader because the entire novel is a tapestry so convoluted and overwhelming at times that there was no defining bigger picture to put the puzzles neatly together. This is both the magic and weakness of Ilustrado. As terribly enchanting and genuinely humorous the excerpts from Salvador’s works were, Syjuco’s plot is hardly distinguishable; his side of the story alternates between autobiographical lamentations to psychological examinations of the Filipino identity or lack thereof. Though this book is a work of fiction, it translates more as a memoir of a person (who is by all accounts not even real), though perhaps that was the intention. If Salvador was meant to mirror the neglected Philippine literature, then Miguel (not the actual author but the ‘protagonist’) is the reflection of a generation of youth who is a mix of different cultures that are not its own, and the only distinctive quality that makes it unique is the diversity itself.

I battled within myself how I could review this novel while I balance both subjective and objective opinions. In a more personal sense, this book was an accomplishment of multitude proportions. It was intelligent, funny and intense. It casted a spell on me the whole time I was reading it. It was the kind of story that feels important because you relate strongly to it, even if the true reason is unknowable. I applaud Syjuco’s grasp of the English language while at the same time using it as distinctively Filipino. His prose has the same layers as our national identity like the scattered entities of our own geographical distance; we live separately because our country is an archipelago but in a more symbolic sense than the literal. When this book was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize, Syjuco claimed that "I’m a Filipino. I’m nothing else but a Filipino. I’d like to be a writer, not just defined by race." The product of his literary quest is a novel where fact and fiction are interchangeable at both its best and worst. Realities are blurred in this work of art, and oftentimes that it became exhausting to keep up with.

I’m almost afraid to be critical of this book, and it’s probably because in doing so I fear that it would devalue the enjoyment and other more sentimental feelings I have for Ilustrado. But two days after finishing it, I was finally able to de-mystify and make more sense of this book once I’ve separated myself from its transformative hold. This was also made possible when I finally figured out the epilogue. It took me a while but once it hit me, I was more confounded than satisfied. It enabled me to re-examine the book again with a more critical stance. There was definitely an overreaching quality to the way Syjuco wrote this story. There are so many threads that he had to connect together but the threads were not gracefully woven in the first place so the endgame was composed of many frays rather than with something concrete. I was not too happy about that. It certainly felt like all that time I spent in the darkness was absurdity itself because there was a candle behind me the whole time and all I needed to do was to turn around and grab it.

I suppose that Syjuco’s novel is what it is because he is still defined by the Filipino’s search for national identity, even if he doesn’t want to believe it himself. We cannot escape the pull of our race and all its trappings. Much like Luna’s painting of Spolarium, we bask in our colonization, and our struggle to be individualistic still comes back to our purgatory where we are never going to be complete as persons, or whole as a nation. And there’s beauty in that decay.


Even with its flaws in narrative and consistent storytelling, Ilustrado is stylish and daring for its literary execution. The prose is crisp with memorable passages and its defying structure makes it unable for readers to put it in a specific genre. This novel can be enjoyed best if you read nothing else. Because of the fragmented way it was written, you shouldn’t put it down for too long if you do take a break. It may take a while to develop a momentum when you read it.
Profile Image for Rise.
298 reviews31 followers
March 4, 2016
(Reread 4 March 2016)

Speaking of Ilustrado, here's a post I wrote 5 years ago about two characters in the book:


The puzzle fragments of this novel, like the famed Hundred Islands in Pangasinan, form an island chain of experiences and consciousness. The sequence is filtered through several narrative ecosystems: immigrant experience, colonialism, cultural diffusion, literary questionings, historical deficits, failures of identity. At the center of Ilustrado are two writers struggling with their own demons.

It was a pleasure to read this novel from its strong prologue to the multiplicity of excerpts and "excerpts within excerpts." Miguel Syjuco reinvigorated Filipino writing with experimental possibilities. The ending forces one to question the power granted to storytellers. Syjuco's manipulative skills are impressive. I hope his follow up book will not be a long time coming.

My notes on the prologue here: http://booktrek.blogspot.com/2010/06/...
Profile Image for Christine.
5 reviews1 follower
January 13, 2012
The book marketed itself to be one of those stories of a minority in a new surrounding, trying to fit, etc. And it turned out to be such a disappoint.

Chapter by chapter, I dutifully turned the page hoping that the protagonist would reveal his vulnerability and lets us into his core. Then he turned out to be just one jerk who was just experiencing teen angst.

I chose the book to predominantly support my fellow Filipino. This story is more about elitism and there isn't enough material for the reader to identify with.

I'm hoping the next book would be less of a disappointment.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,992 reviews699 followers
August 28, 2018
My, my, what a wonderful, polyphonic cocaine snort of a novel this is...

I've always had something of a love for the Filipino people, in general. Hell, perhaps the thing I most regret about my last breakup is the loss of contact with my girlfriend's warm-hearted Filipina mother, a woman who always had a plate of pancit for me and would loudly gossip about me on the phone in Tagalog, assuming I couldn't understand despite the fact that she used my name multiple times.

And Miguel Syjuco taps into all that warmth and loveliness, along with all the complete insanity that has driven all of my Pinoy friends to find work -- and not especially well-remunerated work at that -- as English teachers, bartenders, and nightclub musicians in relatively wealthy, relatively stable Bangkok... the obscene wealth divisions, casual violence, a kind of Christianity that emphasizes the stigmata, and the rest. All told in quotes from myriad fictional novels, online forum discussions, spam posts, newspaper clippings, political speeches, and so on interspersed with a more traditional narrative. And it works.
Profile Image for Nenette.
851 reviews51 followers
May 27, 2010
Finally finished it! A record read for me - took me more than 2 weeks to finish! Firstly, there's the very unfriendly font. There were many kinds of typeface fonts that were used, with the regular one proving to be a challenge to read at night; so much more for the smaller typeface which was italized! Oh well, even if it was the tiniest of font, I would surely have found a light bright enough to read it, if only it was able to hold me, but it didn't.

This is a satire, and the story was interesting enough, with an ending that kinda surprised me. The problem I had was the very fragmented story-telling style. The book has a main plot, and a lot of sub-plots that were presented as excerpts from the books authored by either Crispim or Miguel, further interspersed with Filipino jokes or funny stories. I had to always go back to check what happened last on sub-plot A, as the continuation may be found only after sub-plot E!

I'm still giving it a 3 because as I said, it was interesting enough...I'll quote some parts that I believe are significant for Filipinos:

"....as a nation (Philippines), we're overly concerned with the past. Even engaged in the present, we lean slightly backward as time forces us forward."

"Due to the fruit's many sides, or faces, the term 'balimbing' is often used disparagingly to refer to politicians and traitors, though in my mind it can also refer to the versatile, Janus-like character of the Filipino. While our national fruit is officially the mango, arbitrarily mandated by the Americans during their occupation, it is not a long bow to draw to propose the balimbing as the country's unofficial fruit, due to its metaphoric significance."
Profile Image for Mag.
383 reviews55 followers
April 4, 2010
A Filipino ilustrado embarks on a journey to discover the real cause of drowning of an author, in which we mainly weave between the Philippines and North America, Manila and New York. Ilustrado, if you wonder, is an interesting word with several meanings ranging from just being illustrated as with a book, through being wise, to denoting a man who made something of himself through being enlightened or learned. I found it neat that the story delivered in all the meanings of the word. The story is clever, enlightening and entertaining, and illustrates different aspects of Filipino life and emigration, even though it suffers somewhat from lack of focus. It took me an awfully long time to actually get into it with its bits and pieces of scattered narration that offers everything from snippets of Filipino history and politics, social criticism, vignettes from life in Manila, parts of other stories, and even Filipino jokes to boot. The structure was clever though, and not so difficult to follow once you got the hang of it.
Profile Image for musa b-n.
109 reviews5 followers
November 7, 2017
This was like, a fine book. There's a bunch of misogyny and homophobia. I think it's purposeful, so that you don't like the main character, but I still found it excessive and unnecessary. And a little boring? But the prose was engaging and compelling, and I found the plot pretty cool.
Profile Image for Avid.
225 reviews16 followers
January 2, 2020
I am not perceptive enough to figure out wtf was going on in this book. I mean, the words all made sense, and i recognize the author’s mastery of language and vocabulary and subtlety and other literary talents. But golly, i have no effing clue what i just read. I’m not even 100% certain i could correctly identify the protagonist. I had heard what a wonderful book this was (it won awards, FCS!), but it was a huge disappointment for me.
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