Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco

Reading Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco gave me the headache and I've gone through the novel twice. The difficult thing about writing my review is that I want to understand what this novel will contribute to my understanding of how novels are being written today and why, but Illustrado is too post-modern for my appreciation. But fortunately not for my taste. I have been downloading and buying e-books to read on my tablet while I take the MRT and LRT. I didn't always immediately understand the post-modern tales I would be reading but it wasn't worth my precious forty five minutes to one hour to read traditional novels, those chronological, plot oriented or character driven narratives. Somehow, I’m done reading those types because in all honesty, I easily get bored. So, it is as if I have been courting the headaches because I didn't want to read a mere ‘read-in-one-sitting novel’ (after all, I would always be standing on the train). I prefer to read slowly, and sometimes repetitively, and discover what makes a contemporary tale tick. I read as a trying-very-hard, would-be-if-God-allows-it, writer. Illustrado have given me really deep thoughts about writing a novel.

For instance, I thought about how the narrator in Illustrado isn't reliable and yet, he's the only narrator that could tell me that very tale of why novelists matter, and then how they themselves are aware that what they've written probably won't matter at all in the greater scheme of things. But even with this knowledge, not writing isn’t an option, since it seems as if this is a call that will not go away –for all the desiring-to-become writers out there. There’s no way to curb this desire to write, it is simply exhausting to do so. And it seems to me that this is the sadness of the tale: how an author could be so engaged with history and the suffering of its nation, and would always be motivated and eager to pen a prophetic piece, but would have to always fight oneself in the process, since all writers who are eager to write anything at all will have to decide against any soul sell-out and scheme for a quick and easy road to prosperity.

In this novel, the term Illustrado is negatively pursued, because the narrator doubts the protege to be a real Illustrado. Like, what do this Illustrado really know about the grim realities on the city streets, the squalor in urban squatters, the catastrophe in the rural areas where disasters are endless? His more financially endowed background should have allowed him more opportunities to advocate for development where change needed to happen, but in his rich location, he often didn’t have an accurate feel of the sadness of the situation. If he would fully engage, he would have to become a traitor to his class.

Until he viewed his birthplace from exile as most Illustrados did before him, but then how deeply could he engage the questions of national suffering once he’d gone incognito in some remote place as an OFW? He would have to negotiate the terms of being comfortable – free from the onslaught of suffering – outside his country vis a vis his desire to go back and confront by actually seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling his country's ills. Then perhaps he could burn his bridges and tell-all.

This seems to be the burden of the Illustrado. The prospective Illustrado who wants to write-all immediately wasn’t yet fully in the know, at least, as far as the narrator’s assessment is concerned. The student of history isn’t in the story yet, but only interpolating in the narratives that were penned before his time. Not a real witness of history, not a real Illustrado. Or the millennial who is trying not to get confused about the past. Or he has witnessed some facts of history but his own scant viewpoint keeps his language cautious, objective, and probing rather than purposeful.

In the narrator’s portfolio in this novel, he's done most genre novels - sci fi tale, detective whodunit, even the historical romance. But he is not satisfied, and although he’s begun something that should burn bridges, it’s still questionable if he would be able to divulge in time all that is burning within him. Until he does so then, he hasn't written. And probably, this single fact redeems the Illustrado – that after all, he's still the ONE who could be writing something that must shake the political systems, provoke a revolution, and change cultural habits and attitudes for the better.

Yet, how this novel ends doesn't make me optimistic that this narrator who is the seemingly authentic Illustrado is up to the task. No, not at all.