Novel Reactions: Ilustrado

It could just be me, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado. I liked the way the writer incorporated different forms of media and literature, all of which eventually made sense as the story developed, into one cohesive work, but I was just … okay with it. It’s not a very long book, but it took me a while to finish. (This doesn’t mean I have nothing to say though. I have a bunch.)

Because I like my history, let’s first talk about the title, Ilustrado.

For context, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for 333 years (I am not making this number up) from 1565 to 1898. The word “Ilustrado” referred to people from the Philippines who obtained their education abroad, in Mother Spain. This exposed them to liberal ideas, and they came back seeking to reform Spanish colonial rule (to turn the Philippines into a Spanish province instead of just a colony). Think: Jose Rizal and Plaridel.

But why use a word so old that it was used in history books?

I guess it’s supposed to illustrate how nothing has changed within Philippine society since then. Now, we have our modern Ilustrados, those who were educated abroad and have returned to the Philippines.

How enlightened are they now, really? Are they trying to make a change? (The idealist in me thinks, “yes, for sure,” but the book screams, “get me away from here,” and the latter might actually be closer to the truth. Then again, I also think that our characters had an attitude to begin with, so maybe they’re not the best samples for this.)

But also, with the state of it all, can you blame them for wanting something different?

Since this could spark quite a debate (and in the interest of time and emotions), let’s move on and talk about my thoughts while reading the book (in three parts) instead.

Part 1: Ilustrado started off as promising, maybe for the first ten pages, and then I lost interest and considered not finishing the book. I lost patience and shelved the book in order to finish reading other, longer books that I was sure I could finish in a week.

Part 2: OK, I picked up the book again after having packed everything else away, and I was determined to finish reading before giving the book away. At least the story is finally getting interesting. It did the more it became Miguel’s story. I’m not sure I liked Miguel (ok, I don’t), but I enjoyed all of the references to his Manila life. I will I read on.

Part 3: What? That was it? I read the ending multiple times to make sure it was really over. Is the end what made this book so special??? Did I really bore myself with read the first 80 pages for the story to have ended this way? No, I refuse to believe it—let me read the ending one more time… … … Unbelievable. OK, I guess that was really it.

I just can’t fathom the idea that someone wrote a book about himself and masqueraded it as a book about someone else—only to come back to make it about himself again. Does that explain the tone of the writing? The slight pretentiousness of it all? To top things off, the obsession over the forgotten a writer throughout the book?

I’m at a loss. My only consolation is that I know I tried to read something new and that I finished it. No harm done.

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