The book, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, begins with famous Filipino writer Crispin Salavador, the mentor of young student Miguel, face down in the Hudson River in New York. The death of the Asian literary lion causes ripples in his home country and leads to Miguel's trip back to the Philippines to help tie up some loose ends for Crispin's family and to search for the manuscript of his legendary last book, The Bridges Ablaze. Miguel is ostensibly returning home to interview his teacher's friends and family, gathering information for the biography he has decided to write. However, his journey has other, more personal, reasons; he needs to confront his past and examine his identity to find out where he really belongs.
Although the reader wishes Miguel well on his journey, it is hinted from the start that this is no ordinary quest. One of the names discovered in Crispin's notes for his last novel is Dulcinea - the lead character's unwitting lady love in the Spanish classic Don Quixote. When you add this to the use of the word Quixotic in an excerpt from an interview with Crispin (p.21), where he is discussing the role of Filipino writers, you begin to suspect that there are many tilts at windmills to come.
Apart from dealing with Miguel's identity issues, the novel also looks at Filipino society and politics, which (on the evidence of this book) seem inextricably linked. Through radio updates, text messages and the odd television news break, Syjuco manages to create an authentic backdrop of scandal, intrigue and revolution, set in an imaginary parallel 2002 Manila. Regular news on President Estragan, it-girl of the moment Vita Nova, renegade mercenary Wigberto Lakandula and religious leader Reverend Martin helps to colour in Syjuco's world, based (no doubt) on people who actually existed in the Philippines.
A word of warning: Ilustrado is not your average straight up and down linear narrative. Syjuco has created a tangled web of stories, some intersecting, some parallel to the main narrative, others seemingly superfluous or, at best, tangential. While this can be confusing at first, they do serve a purpose, filling the reader in on some important background and commenting on Filipino history and personality. Many of the strands are excerpts from the many works of the - fictional - Crispin Salvador (although at the time of writing, Salvador's English Wikipedia page is longer than Syjuco's...), including some taken from a monstrous autobiography entitled Autoplagiarist. With the protagonist Miguel sharing his name with Ilustrado's author, it seems an apt choice of title...
It can be difficult at times to keep track of what is happening in the chaos, and non-Filipino readers (which would be most of us - in the small area of the blogosphere I frequent, I'm only aware of a couple of writers from the Philippines) may struggle to keep up at times. Jackie, of Farm Lane Books, recently blogged about a site called Book Drum, where kindly readers patch together background information about a novel to enhance the reading experience. If anyone would care to do this for Ilustrado, you would be doing us all a huge favour...
For anyone who muddles their way through the thickets of autobiography extracts, self-deprecating ethnic jokes, snippets of interviews and parallel narrative though, there is great joy to be had with this Mitchell-esque style of editing the facts. Nothing is certain or fixed (I'm sure it's no coincidence that Crispin's unpublished masterpiece is often referred to by its initials - TBA...). The fiction within the fiction has echoes of the actual fiction (or should that be the fictional reality), and the reader is able to follow both Miguel's Manila adventure and Crispin's rise to fame as a new Ilustrado.
But what does the title actually mean? Well, I suspect most English speakers would take a stab at 'illustrated', but it is actually translated as 'enlightened' and is an expression used to describe the nineteenth-century Filipino intelligentsia (such as the Philippines' most famous writer, Jose Rizal) who travelled to Spain to study and ended up becoming the leaders of the revolution against the Spanish in their homeland. Crispin's days as a guerrilla fighting the new American imperialists would allow him to take on this mantle, but is there a deeper meaning linked to the text? Probably, but it may take me a few more readings to ferret one out (or make one up...).
In short, a fascinating story on many levels, set somewhere I know very little about. Reading this has encouraged me to branch out a little, and I'd like to read Rizal's classic Noli Me Tangere at some point to go back to the roots of Syjuco's heritage and style. Anyway, here's to the next book by Syjuco - or perhaps next time he can introduce us to some more of the work of the mysterious Crispin Salvador...
P.S. - Thanks to Alysha from Random House Australia for sending me this copy of Ilustrado :)