Syjuco’s ‘Ilustrado’ Blurs Reality

by: elizabeth yuan

Hong Kong, China — Two years before it was even published, Miguel Syjuco’s debut “Ilustrado” won the Palanca Grand Prize for the novel — the Philippines’ top literary prize, given only every three years — and the Man Asian Literary Prize, Asia’s top honor.

Finally released, the book begins in 2002 with the death of Crispin Salvador, the “Panther of Philippine Letters” whose works spanned three decades until his 2,572-page memoir, “Autoplagiarist,” was published in 1994.

For the preceding two decades Salvador had labored on a controversial book, “The Bridges Ablaze” (or, “TBA”), meant to shed light on the corruption of the Philippine ruling elite. The unfinished book was to mark his return to the literary scene, but he was found dead in New York City’s Hudson River under mysterious circumstances.

It was left to a Miguel Syjuco, who was in the midst of writing his mentor’s biography, “Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived,” to find the missing manuscript and find out whether he was killed or committed suicide.

The book, which sees Miguel return to the Philippines for answers, blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, forcing the reader to question, is this real? Is this not real? Who is this Salvador fellow, whose works are referenced throughout “Ilustrado” with detailed footnotes? How closely does Miguel resemble the author of “Ilustrado”?

The reader learns of Salvador through post-mortem analyses in media, excerpts from Salvador’s works and interviews, Miguel’s observations and biography-in-progress, blogs and message boards among other resources.
Although the term of the Philippine president in the novel — Fernando V. Estregan — coincides with that of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Estregan is in fact an amalgamation of Ferdinand Marcos, Fidel Valdez Ramos and Joseph Estrada, Syjuco explained.

Although the term of the Philippine president in the novel — Fernando V. Estregan — coincides with that of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Estregan is in fact an amalgamation of Ferdinand Marcos, Fidel Valdez Ramos and Joseph Estrada, Syjuco explained.

Estregan is “all of those and none of them,” Syjuco said in an interview in Hong Kong last month. The wealthy and powerful Lupases and Changcos in the novel may conjure the Philippines’ own Lopezes and Cojuangcos — the family of former President Corazon Aquino — but Syjuco said the names in the novel are not based on the real families at all.