Filipino Fantasy, or Fact? Using multiple stories and a “book within a book” technique, author Miguel Syjuco weaves a tale of intrigue that provides insight into the elite of Filipino society By Hnin Wathan
rispin Salvador, the main character in Miguel Syjuco’s complex novel, is an internationally famous but controversial Filipino writer. He has written essays, memoirs, actionpacked novels and a series of children’s fantasy books. But while living a reclusive life as a professor at the Columbia University, his name is on the verge of being forgotten. So with the help of his former student and protégé, a character bearing the author’s name, Miguel Syjuco, Salvador begins an attempt to restore his reputation by writing what is meant to be his final masterpiece, “The Bridges Ablaze,” a novel exposing the corruption and sins of the Philippine’s elite class of political families. “Ilustrado” begins with the discovery of Salvador’s body floating in the Hudson River, followed by the discovery that the manuscript of his in-process masterpiece has gone missing. Speculation arises about the cause of his death: was it murder or suicide? And rumors appear in the Filipino blogosphere and literary circles: some believe in the existence of
the manuscript, while others remain skeptical. But Miguel (I will refer to the real-life author as Syjuco, and the character having his name as “Miguel”), who now works as an editorial assistant at the Paris Review, believes the manuscript does exist because he saw Salvador typing it before his death. Miguel decides to write a biography of Salvador, and as part of the process sets about investigating the cause of Salvador’s death. While searching through Salvador’s belongings, he finds a list of names written on two pages of notes. He then journeys back to the Philippines and searches for links to these names, and in an attempt to puts the pieces of his dead mentor’s life together, he visits Salvador’s childhood home, interviews his sister and aunt and explores his circle of friends and acquaintances. In Spanish, the word “ilustrados” means “enlightened ones.” During the 19th century, when Spain colonized the Philippines, the educated young Filipino men who went to Europe to study and returned with new ideas that they used in leading the Philippine revolution were called ilustrados by their countrymen.