Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco, the novel that recently won the MAN Asia Prize and the Palanca Grand Prize, is an exceedingly complicated and ambitious work.

It tells many stories simultaneously by using many voices, two narrators who are also the main characters, a dazzling collage of invented material like excerpts from novels and short stories, learned social and political essays, TV shows, printed interviews, poems, letters, and the ubiquitous and anonymous school jokes and ribald stories that all of us get through text messages and E-mail correspondence.

It is a mystery thriller, a historical novel of the Philippines and Filipinos spanning the last 150 years, a novel of manners of the Filipino ilustrado class, a political novel about the Philippines and its various diasporas, a deeply personal autobiographical novel, and a novel about two fictional gifted writers reflecting on Philippine literature.

The main thread of Ilustrado is ostensibly the story of two Filipino writers in New York. Crispin Salvador is a larger-than-life fictionist and essayist who was once a literary lion. Born into a hacendero family from Bacolod, he roamed the world in his youth and later wrote an autobiography about his adventures with the internationally rich and famous. When time passes him by and he is largely forgotten, he retreats to New York, becomes a recluse, teaches literature, and tries to write a final masterpiece. Miguel, who has no surname, is his student who becomes his literary acolyte. Miguel also comes from a wealthy family that lives in Forbes Park, but he has chosen to run away from his emotional problems at home to find himself in Manhattan. He intends to write a biography of Crispin, his mentor, and doggedly hounds him to probe all the hidden crevices in Crispin’s mind and heart.

The novel begins with a prologue by Miguel about the discovery of Crispin’s body floating in the Hudson River. The police don’t know if Crispin was murdered or if he committed suicide. Miguel is deeply troubled by the mysterious death of Crispin and sifts through his belongings in search of a clue to what really happened. He finds nothing except the odds and ends of Crispin’s life. His relationship with his girlfriend, Madison, finally dies at this time after much languishing. There is nothing left for him in New York. He decides to return to the Philippines to try to unearth the truth behind Crispin’s death and to gather more material for the biography.

On the plane trip home, Miguel muses with irony, thoughts framed by the return of the first ilustrados long ago: “Around me, in this tin can, my fellow travelers: we, the acquiescent, unaware insurrectionists, we who have left and returned so constantly throughout history our language has given us a name—balikbayan. Slope-shouldered are we, freighted by years of self-exile; handcarries bulging with items that wouldn’t fit in overweight luggage, all the countless gifts for countless relatives—proof our time away has not been wasted … These are my people. (Crispin once called them the ‘splay-toed, open-hearted’.)”

In Manila for the yuletide, the young writer reflects on his country and people and a pastiche emerges. There is a recollection of Crispin’s imaginary interview: “Manila is the cradle, the memory, the graveyard; the Mecca, the Cathedral, the bordello; the shopping mall, urinal, discotheque. I’m hardly speaking in metaphor.” And a passage from one of his books: “… We should embrace Traffic as part of our cultural identity, the way the French have their smoking and the Italians their womanizing …. Our chaos is as ordered as it is necessary. We cope. We protect ourselves. We learn the patience necessary in everyday life …. Happy are those who learn to enjoy it. It’s better than a cockfight, and free!”

Like Manila traffic, the novel’s narrative congeals into ordered chaos. The time line is frequently disrupted with invented historical texts of the origins of the Filipino elites beginning with the migration of Crispin Salvador’s Spanish great grandfather to the Philippines in 1860. History is merged with fiction through Crispin’s stories of the Philippine Revolution in the 19th century. One of Crispin’s characters, Cristo, returns home from battle after the Revolution has been defeated. His four young sons no longer recognize him. He shaves his beard and walks with his sons and his wife, Maria Clara, after dinner. On the spur of the moment, he invites his wife to have another child, to try for a girl, this time. Then he says: “We will become American. Our children will learn to speak American. When they are ready, we will send them there to be educated. Just as I was in Europe …. They’ll return to make a difference.”

In Crispin’s imagined autobiography, he alludes to the deterioration of the ilustrados from the heights of revolution to crass selfishness and greed when he writes: “Fittingly, my father’s name was Narciso …. At one time, somewhere in the lineage before him, the name possessed the tragedy of the myth and the irony that such a name could be possessed by such a man so distinctly un-narcissistic. Upon my father, however, … the very act of christening him ‘Narciso’ authored a parody of a sacred sacrament, wherein one is named for his essence, his worst characteristic by which he would be forever remembered. In fact, he is belittled further as ‘Junior’ …. A self-fulfilling prophecy: try as he did, he was damned forever to be the tiny narcissus.”

With an unflinching gaze, the novel inexorably, albeit sporadically, builds a most critical profile of Filipino elites. The character of Miguel remembers that his mother bought a pair of jeans for P5,000 and paid her maid only P3,000 a month. At a dinner in Dasmariñas Village where he is introduced to the parents of his new Pinay girlfriend, Sadie, he records through dialogue the utter contempt with which Sadie’s mother regards her maids. There is a scene of bitter bickering over inheritances in a family after the collapse of sugar prices in the 70s. And historical accounts of the many bastard children of the elites. Miguel begins to go out regularly with his young barkada to the nightspots and clinically records their superficial preoccupation with drugs and sex, including his own reversion to getting high.

Through TV and the papers, he sees the country descend into chaos from politically-instigated bombings and the ruthless machinations of the charlatan Brother Martin of a charismatic Christian movement, the opportunistic revolutionary Wigberto Lakan, and the corrupt President Fernando V. Estregan and his ally, former general turned senator, Filimon Lontok. Within the gathering storm in the country, the novel examines the possibilities of high-minded action through the writings of Crispin, a bit like what Rizal’s novels did. The writings are from different periods in Crispin’s life and are contradictory. They cover the gamut of choices—from revolution to compromise to acquiescence to creating literature like Rizal’s that would kindle social powder kegs.

While the novel paints the large portrait of Philippine society, it simultaneously develops the personal quest of Miguel for the truth about Crispin. He talks to his sister and aunt and discovers a humdinger of a family secret that will send him on a lengthy odyssey for the roots of Crispin and what makes him tick. In the process, he is forced to confront his own bitter personal secret.

All the stories are regularly interspersed with pop culture jokes about a promdi OFW called Erning Isip; colgelialas, Atenistas, La Sallites, and their foil, a poor student from the AMA Computer College; and the hilariously bawdy Boy Bastos. They lighten the essentially cerebral nature of Ilustrado.

Like: “When Boy Bastos was still a sperm in Erning’s testicle, he was already precocious. One day … he feels the current moving them forward. Boy Bastos … leads the pack. As he is about to shoot forth from Erning’s shaft, he shouts, ‘Go back, go back, it’s only tonsils!’ The next day, he feels the current moving again and leads the pack once more. At the last instant, he shouts again: ‘Go back, go back! It’s only condom!’ The next day, the current flows, and Boy swims forward with anticipation, convinced this time must be his. Suddenly, he turns back, shouting desperately to the others: ‘Go back, go back! It’s shit!’”

Using a wide variety of materials in a novel is often called bricolage—literally, construction by using whatever comes to hand. Its expert use in Ilustrado achieves several objectives. It imbues the novel with a wonderful makeshift and uncertain quality that evokes real life. It also broadens the canvas of the novel by using pop culture and sharpens its content by limning its characters and present realities with light from learned analysis of the past.

Heteroglossia—multiple voices using different language registers—is also employed quite effectively by the talented author. Because the many voices in Ilustrado all ring true, what emerges is a large three-dimensional reflection of our country and of ourselves from various angles, including the views from our scattered diasporas.

All the story lines converge towards the end of the novel. Miguel continues to be alienated from his parents and does not yet resolve his personal dilemma. One night, he and Sadie bail out of a nightspot from boredom to go to a party. It rains heavily and the streets flood. The lights go out in most places and they are stuck in frozen traffic near the Pasig River at the edge of Makati. The Pasig rises and they are trapped in Sadie’s car. A factory across the river explodes like fireworks. Two street children float by their car atop an ice-cream cart.

Miguel remembers Crispin’s words: “You must choose sides. If you choose your own, you choose oppression, fratricide, indifference; you will never be content amongst your own. If you side with the others, you choose treason, patricide, betrayal; you will never be accepted amongst those unlike you …. What to do? Nothing to be done, Pozzo. You cannot sit this out. The airplane lands. The people clap. Take a bow. You’re on the stage.”

While this is happening, EDSA 4 is going on at Malacañang. Lakan has taken hostages and threatens to kill them. The mob, egged on by Brother Martin over the objections of Lakan, attacks the palace. The national political storm coincides with the heavy rains and the crisis in Miguel’s life that calls for action.

In post-modern style, Ilustrado ends uncertainly, or perhaps, ends in several contradictory ways. There are several scenes where Miguel takes alternative paths with vague results that are written in soaring prose: “He thought, instead, not of how it began, but how it must have ended, of how it always must. That last final moment before going towards the light: the pinprick of dawn, the world turning on its side, the horizon vertical, the sun and the moon in the same sky …. Hearing someone sing your name, seeing faces to whom life will soon ascribe meaning, the discovery of your first word, the oblivion of not yet knowing there would ever be your last.”

The epilogue is a fitting ending to the chaos so ably rendered by the novel. It surprises, explains much, but also further nuances the multiple visions that abound throughout the book. The language of the denouement, by itself, is a singular achievement that is certain to satisfy readers.

Ilustrado is metafiction in that it is often fiction about fiction. It is a most cerebral novel that dares to reflect the Philippines and Filipinos at so many levels and dimensions. Through virtuoso use of language and a dazzling array of fictional techniques, it achieves all of its lofty objectives.

It is far too sophisticated to engage readers in the direct way of, say, melodrama, like Rizal’s novels did. The right reader, however, will be thoroughly engaged by this novel, for he will be enticed to reflect upon himself and his society in a fresh light through the passion of ideas.

It deserves all the accolades it has won. It is among the finest novels written by a Filipino. Perhaps, even by any writer.

(Antonio A. Hidalgo was chair of the board of judges that unanimously awarded the 2008 Palanca Grand Prize for the novel to Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. Thanks to Syjuco, this review was also based on the slightly rewritten version that won the 2008 MAN Asia Prize.)

Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, December 1, 2008, pp. E1-E2.

Posted on November 21, 2008