In a post-colonial parallel reality Philippines; the body of a once-famed Filipino writer was fished out of the Hudson River amidst the backdrop of the September 11, 2001 attacks unravelling tales of triumphs, trials and tribulations. As his student takes stock of his mentor’s life and works in search of his last unpublished novel amidst a string of estranged relationships, the denizens of the blogosphere offer their two cents worth over the otherwise long and colourful life and mysterious death of the author as the harried student pieces together what is left of his mentor’s final work amidst the maddening little universe that is Philippine society. Welcome to the world of "Ilustrado," the much acclaimed debut novel of 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and Palanca Award winner Miguel Syjuco.
Through the life experiences and the writings of the two protagonists, namely the dead author Crispin Salvador and his student assistant Miguel; Syjuco’s novel takes the reader into a trip alternating between both a century and a half of Philippine History and an alternate modern Philippines disturbingly similar to ours.
In the Pinoy universe of "Ilustrado," the unlikely combination of old rich families, irreverent bloggers–cum-Internet trolls as well as migrant workers share an uneasy coexistence with unholy evangelists and crooked politicians amidst a succession of EDSA revolts erupt as the angst of the average Pinoy college-educated petit bourgeoisie clash with both the world of local traditional politics and an otherwise illustrious past through compiled autobiographical snippets, collected essays and anecdotes covering the life of Crispin Salvador. As the title revels on the identities of the protagonists in being Ilustrados or "sosyal" in today’s context; it also points on how they relate to the otherwise dysfunctional world around them. In the case of Crispin and Miguel, they are separated by generations, the former belonging to what seemed like a genteel generation surviving a global war, reconstruction and Martial Law, this in contrast to the rough-and-tumble present world of the Internet, laptops and Starbucks of Miguel’s.
As the absentee protagonist of Ilustrado; Crispin Salvador is a combination of Charles Foster Kane, Leonard Zelig and Forrest Gump, absent yet omnipresent as his life and writings reflect the chaos that is modern Philippine history. Born in the final peacetime years before the Second World War; Crispin lived his life as newspaper columnist, communist guerrilla, overseas Filipino worker, gadfly and ultimately novelist as he vents out his sentiments, insights and frustrations on the Philippines through his selected essays, interviews and travelogues with acerbic pithiness. As with a real-life columnist, Salvador draws on clichéd metaphors for what is wrong with Philippine society; ‘While our fruit is officially the mango arbitrarily mandated by the Americans during the occupation, it is not a long bow to propose the balmibing as the country’s unofficial fruit due it its metaphorical significance.’ went one of his quotes. But it is Syjuco’s literary conceit that sets "Ilustrado" apart; it is magically real even though it is fiction.
(Paul Lee is a freelance writer. He is currently finishing his master's in creative writing at U.P. Diliman).