Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

This feels like a huge inside joke. And being Filipino drives home the punchline just like an arrow to the heart.

About Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco*: It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River—taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and only remaining friend, sets out for Manila to investigate.

To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, piecing together Salvador’s story through his poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The result is a rich and dramatic family saga of four generations, tracing 150 years of Philippine history forged under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Filipinos themselves. Finally, we are surprised to learn that this story belongs to young Miguel as much as to his lost mentor, and we are treated to an unhindered view of a society caught between reckless decay and hopeful progress.

My thoughts

The book in one sentence: Young Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco seeks the truth about the death of his mentor Crispin Salvador and his missing last manuscript, and in the process shares with readers elements of the Filipino identity.


I'm a Filipino. Born, raised and lived in the Philippines for most of my 30 + odd years. I migrated to Canada shy of 2 years ago. My appetite for Filipino literature has been limited, though I have read the compulsory Noli and El Fili and have enjoyed F. Sionil Jose, Lualhati Bautista, Gilda Cordero-Fernando -- but mainly because it was hip to do so in university and in the NGO circles. It's ironic that I started book blogging because I wanted to expose myself to more genres of literature and read writers from various cultures, but never really looked in my own back yard. My bad.

I guess being in another country was the push for me to truly appreciate the idiosyncrasies of being Filipino, and finally read this much talked about book! I first read the review of Ilustrado by Blooey of this young Filipino writer who with his debut novel takes home the Man Asian Literary Prize. Then during lunch break this 2011, irony of ironies, my Canadian co-worker tells me that their book club is reading Ilustrado

So hunker down to read it I did. And I surprisingly discovered that so many things resonated with me.


The story opens with the brutally murdered body of literary legend, Crispin Salvador, pulled put of the Hudson River. Young Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco turns detective when he learns of the death of his mentor .... and Salvador's missing last manuscript, a controversial exposé of the crimes of powerful political clans. Syjuco who is US-based, returns to the Philippines to seek out Salvador's friends and relatives, anyone who can shed light on the mysterious circumstances of Salvador's tragic murder. And so Syjuco decides to write Salvador's biography.

In uncovering Salvador's venerable (yet deliciously tainted) past, we also gain insight to Syjuco himself. Why Ilustrado? What is an ilustrado? Both our main characters are ilustrado in their own generation -- belonging to the elite, the moneyed, the influential, the educated. Salvador is known as "the panther" in the Philippine literary scene, descended from a political clan hailing from sugar country Bacolod. Meanwhile, Syjuco is the grandson of a powerful politician and businessman who seeks his own place in the world as a writer.

While the overall story line is nothing outstanding in my mind, the story unfolds in a non-conventional manner, and there is of course some strange twist that awaits you. The book alternates in telling the stories of Miguel Syjuco and Crispin Salvador. There are too many parallels in their lives to ignore. We glean an understanding - in two different generations - of what it means to be a Filipino living abroad, the difficulties of breaking into the literary scene, and the politics and family dynamics of being an ilustrado. And with the unfolding of their life stories spans a surprising arc of 150 years of Philippine history, of colonial rule under the Spanish and the Americans,  the struggle to regain footing as a nation under a dictator of over two decades, to the present-day of how many EDSA People Power revolutions (what number are we up to now? In the book we're up to 5.)

Syjuco's storytelling style does takes a little getting used to. He tells the story through a mishmash of:

  • excerpts from Crispin Salvador's various novels, writings, and his autobiography, 
  • hi alter-ego Miguel Syjuco's memoirs, emails to family members, and even phone SMS/text messages (oh, did you know that Filipinos are infamous texters?!),
  • newspaper clippings, blog entries,
  • jokes throughout about the common Filipino, sometimes silly, sometimes ribald, but I'm sure if you grew up in the Philippines or surrounded by Filipinos, you would have heard some version of it.
There is a lovely cultural richness when Salvador's novels are excerpted, so convincingly real - a realistic melding of the real and Syjuco's imagined. For example, Lupang Pula (Red Earth) which was published in the US, chronicles Huk uprisings during the Japanese occupation in the Philippines. Master of the Seas is about how early Filipinos held their own against Spanish conquistadores. Dahil Sa’yo (Because of You) is an account of Marcos dictatorship - it is also the name of the highly popular kundiman (the classic Filipino love song) which is a self-professed favourite of Imelda Marcos. The Kaputol (Brothers) trilogy, while a coming-of-age story, takes us into the Martial Law Era. I also found interesting that Salvador has a story which heavily references Philippine folklore including kapre [giants] and dwende [dwarves]. And  it would be a disservice if he didn't have a crime-busting character somewhere -- he doesn't disappoint with a sit-com-like/old Filipino movie-like episodes starring Antonio Astig and company!  

It's these teeny-tiny details, that's what makes this book so Filipino. There are tongue-in-cheek pokes at modern Philippine life - ranging from politics, to remonstrances about the place of Philippine literature, to the mundane but horrible and very real possibility of getting caught in flashflood in a car (yes, this has happened to me!). I felt like this with Little Women and Anna Karenina, both of whose storylines paled in comparison to the teeny-tiny details which gave me such a rich understanding and "right-there" feeling about the milieus of the books.


This whole book is an inside joke. For every Filipino, whether now in the Philippines, a balikbayan, or living abroad, you'll see some aspect of the joke, and can't help laugh along with Syjuco. For the curious non-Filipino, this is an adventure into the Filipino psyche, and you'll come away with a better understanding why Filipinos are who they are, what the Philippines as a nation is today. There is actually much to laugh about. Laugh with the Filipinos, because that is our trademark for our survival as a people.


  1. A joke, ha! For all of the novel's gimmickry and pyrotechnics, isn't it a relief that it all boiled down to a well-calculated joke? It may be that the final chapter saved it from being the usual self-conscious serious stuff. I enjoyed your review. It reminds me a lot of the novel's playfulness.

  2. I agree, Rise. The ending is what made the book. I found it funny that so many people think that this is sooo profound ... where is everyone's sense of humour these days?

  3. I had to stifle a laugh upon reading this bit: "...mainly because it was hip to do so in university and in the NGO circles." Haha. Wonderful review, Aloi. Glad to know I wasn't the only one through whose lens irreverent and satisfying humor was seen in this book.

  4. aldrin - hay, uni days. funny how easily i can admit that i'm such a conformist hehehe! glad you enjoyed the review!


© guiltless readingMaira Gall