When my sister visited me a couple of months ago, she gave me Ilustrado as a birthday gift. I actually requested it from her after hearing quite a bit about the novel since it won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 for what was then an unpublished work.
Ilustrado finally came out this year. I have the Philippine print, but I've also seen the international edition in Kinokuniya in Bangkok.
I swear it's very rare to see Filipino books in Thailand. One time I saw a used copy of Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere at the Sanam Luang night market... translated to Thai no less! That was one quite proud moment for me but other than that Filipino books are hard to come by here. Well, I saw Jessica Hagedorn's Dream Jungle at B2S a little over a year ago, but that's it.
Now back to Ilustrado. The attention Miguel Syjuco's novel has brought to Philippine literature comes in no better time. I could not remember any recent Filipino book that garnered this much international attention. It has received good reviews from the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian.
This is no doubt a novel worth reading, especially for Filipinos, because it highlights the corruption of our culture by no one but ourselves. Syjuco zooms in on the alta sociedad, the upper crust of the society, their frivolities and insensitivity to the glaring poverty of the majority.
He also plays on the joke that is Philippine politics wherein a leader of a religious cult, a separatist senator, a security guard, the country's president, and a starlet collide... entertaining (perhaps distracting?) the masses to no end.
While the schizophrenia of the Filipino culture and history serves as a backdrop to this novel, the plot revolves around the main character's, also named Miguel Syjuco, search for the lost manuscript of his mentor, Crispin Salvador, who is one day found floating in the Hudson River.
Miguel flies to Manila in search for the manuscript. While he unearths the many facets of the life of Crispin, he is also pushed into confronting his past as a prodigal grandson and his halcyon days as a member of Manila's nihilistic set.
Soon enough, readers would find a story within a story within a story in a novel that is filled with overlapping narrators and point of views. Syjuco refers to newspaper articles, excerpts from a biography, blog posts replete with comments, popular jokes, and magazine interviews.
As a caveat (and possible spoiler), there's really no reason to try to string all the story lines together. The novel is made up of at once entertaining and at the same time profound parts that might not be worth summing up. The parts are better than the whole in this book's case.
For Filipino readers, many of the criticisms Syjuco fires against Filipino culture is somewhat familiar because many of the characters and events are parodies of actual people and situations. At times his observations come from an outsider's perspective, owing perhaps to the fact that Syjuco has been living away from the Philippines for years now.
If there's anything negative I can say about Ilustrado, there are many lines in the novel that I feel were just overwrought, bordering on the pretentious. I guess the writer is just overeager to show his skills, but that's my assumption.
Otherwise, the novel is an enjoyable read and, while not the best Filipino novel yet, is definitely a good addition to Philippine literature.