The last time we wrote about Philippine literature, we were celebrating the living legend that is Ed Maranan. Today, we celebrate a much younger man, Miguel Syjuco, who was born in Manila after martial law was already declared and born to parents still very much active in Philippine politics today. Syjuco has had his poems and short stories published in the Philippines through Ateneo de Manila University, where he studied English Literature. He has since completed his masters in Creative Writing studying at Columbia University in the States and is now resident in Montreal copy editing for the Montreal Gazette.
Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, a book that is a semi-autobiographical novel about a couple of Filipino writers in New York who belong to the Ilustrado class, has just won the MAN Asia Prize and the Palanca Grand Prize. The Man Asia Prize is still only in its third year but is awarded to outstanding Asian novels written in English, the prize also awards $10,000 to the author, whilst receiving a prestigious Palanca Award is the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize in the Philippines. So two highly esteemed literary awards, all coming to a debut novelist!
Ilustrado is the name given to the middle-classes in the Philippines. These were native-born intellectuals, often the children of landowners that were educated to a very high standard, often in Spanish. Another term often used to describe this kind of Filipino is an intelligentsia, which derives from a Russian class of people engaged in both creative and complex mental activities geared towards the passing on of information, such as teachers, artists, authors etc. Many figures and heroes of Philippine history were Ilustrados such as Dr. Jose Rizal, Antonio & Juan Luna and Marcelo H. Del Pilar.
In his book, Syjuco writes through both his main characters; Crispin Salvador, a once great Philippine writer who has settled in New York and his protégé, Miguel. Miguel has no surname, but he investigates the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his mentor Crispin. The story actually gives an account of 150 years of Philippine history chronicling the Ilustrados’s lives and the events that shaped them.
Syjuco provides a chronological account of the development of the Philippines through a collection of fictional characters and events. He uses the history of Crispin’s family and the experiences of Miguel in investigating the death of Crispin and his journey back home to the Philippines to demonstrate how the Philippines and its people have arrived to the position we are in today, from Spanish immigrants, to the revolution, to Filipino elitism to balikbayans and to corrupt politicians.
What is striking about this book is the socio-political commentary that runs through it. Syjuco paints us a fictional Philippines past and present that isn’t that fictional. It is not as obvious and openly driven as the writing of Dr. Rizal; it has so many layers and uses multiple writing styles that evoke the melting pot of the Philippines just through the act of reading it.
For a full and far more comprehensive review of the book, please visit: http://milfloresonline.blogspot.com/2008/11/review-of-ilustrado.html
It is the review written by Antonio A. Hidalgo, chair of the board of judges for the Palanca grand Prize 2008.
Also visit: http://www.manasianliteraryprize.org/2009/index.php
Miguel Syjuco will be in London in March and Philippine Generations will be once again working with Asia House to provide people with an opportunity to meet and speak to the author. Once we have confirmed the date and time we will provide you with more information.
By Adrian Williams