In Miguel Syjuco’s acclaimed novel, Ilustrado, the “enlightened” ones have taken on a modernized form.

During the 19th century, ilustrados were originally known as men who bore radical ideas of liberalism and nationalism in the waning years of the Spanish colonization.

But today, the ilustrados are the “balikbayan” or repatriate Filipinos, like the author himself who after leaving his motherland in search for greener pastures, still chose to write for truth rather than to write the “truth”.

Reaping awards such as the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and Palanca Grand Prize, Ilustrado opens with the protagonist venturing into a fictional in-depth investigation of the life of his mentor and friend, Crispin Salvador.

It is an ordinary, clear winter morning of 2002 when Syjuco found Salvador’s lifeless body floating along the Hudson River in New York City. Did Salvador commit suicide or was he the victim of foul play? The protagonist, Syjuco taking on a different personality away from being the author of Ilustrado, searches for answers.

Once a well-respected figure of his field after being touted as the “lion of Philippine literature”, Salvador’s career ended bleakly after his last work received harsh feedback from writers and critics alike.

Syjuco, who is working for a local newspaper in New York, wants to find out why Salvador’s last masterpiece made his countrymen turn their backs against him.

Armed with his mentor’s belongings, Syjuco leaves New York and returns to a chaotic Philippines. While there, he hopes to complete his biography of Salvador as well as look for the missing manuscript meant to expose the evils of the elitist families ruling the country for generations.

Haircut rule protested

The reader is also introduced to Syjuco’s own stories of love, family, and the state of his motherland. Syjuco muses on the sour ending of his first relationship and how he is at bad terms with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, an influential politician during his time, who wants him pursue politics instead of journalism. In his defense, Syjuco says he doesn’t want to become like the corrupt government officials he despised.

Syjuco fashions the characters as fictional representations of today–from the staunch opposition to the pro-administration government official. Ilustrado echoes the same sentiments Filipinos harbor–hungry for change and desperate for progress.

Ilustrado depicts Philippine society and politics in the modern era just as Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” depicted the same during Rizal’s time. Syjuco writes about the supporters of change amassing around a staunch activist, similar to El Filibusterismo’s Simoun.

As Syjuco narrates his travels around the country, he describes Manila aboard a taxi, describing the traffic as an essential part of Filipino culture. His return to the Philippines from the United States depicts the return of the modern ilustrado with his overweight luggage, a trait Filipinos are known for.

Because of Syjuco’s complex way with words, an ordinary reader may have trouble understanding the novel. Also, the abrupt transition from Syjuco’s ordeal to his life proves to be confusing to the reader. Nevertheless, Ilustrado is a fine work of literature. Recommended for budding writers and history enthusiasts alike, the novel tackles the life and death of a respected wordsmith like Salvador, bearing the lessons of his rise and descent and eventually defining the real meaning of success. J. E. B. Trinidad


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