Ilustrado (Miguel Syjuco)

Ilustrado: A Novel Ilustrado: A Novel by Miguel Syjuco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From Goodreads: "Ilustrado opens with Crispin Salvador, lion of Philippine letters, dead in the Hudson River. His young acolyte, Miguel, sets out to investigate the author’s suspicious death and the strange disappearance of an unfinished manuscript—a work that had been planned not just to return the once-great author to fame but to expose the corruption behind the rich families who have ruled the Philippines for generations. To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, charting Salvador’s trajectory via his poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The literary fragments become patterns become stories become epic: a 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. In the shifting terrain of this remarkably ambitious and daring first novel, Miguel Syjuco explores fatherhood, regret, revolution, and the mysteries of lives lived and abandoned."

...I don't even know where to begin with this book. Ilustrado is a novel that spans lifetimes and characters, bringing the reader into a mess of confusion about what is real and what even constitutes the narrative - and yet at the end, leaving a sense of completion.

I was actually hesitant to pick up this book because of its cover. I can't remember now why it was on my to-read list, but the reason I didn't even start reading until two days before it was due at the library was its cover - unassuming and bland. To readers who think as I did: please pick up the book anyway.

Ilustrado is a book that would be shelved in the general fiction section, a book marketed as "literature," and yes - it's a book about the "real" world, by an adult, for adults. But what separates this book from so many other "literary" books is the complexity with which it is crafted, and the simplicity with which it is narrated. While there is a complete storyline that can be followed from the beginning to the end, it is intertwined with other pieces - excerpts from the works of the fictional Crispin Salvador (the infamous Filipino author), a parade of local jokes, invented blog posts, and finally, interjections by a mysterious omniscient narrator. This complexity is tempered by the simplicity of the first person narration - the story is told by Miguel, a man who speaks his mind, a man who serves as our guide in the strangeness of his native world.

There is a story - one man, Miguel (a sometimes wholly unlikeable man, to tell the truth), who, upon the death of his mentor Crispin Salvador, sets out to unravel the mysteries of his life - but larger than that story is a rich portrait of the Philippines, pulled together by from disparate elements of the narrative. I loved the depth of it, and the twist at the end (yes, there's a twist, although I won't tell you what) was unexpected and perfect.

Lush, evocative, and in all ways accessible, I was drawn into Ilustrado from the beginning. My only regret: that I had to finish it in two days, since there was a hold on it at the library. The next time I read it, I'll take my time.

View all my reviews >>