Book Review: Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

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.  (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.

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars.
Date Read: March 19 – 30, 2011

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