It is rewarding to read and reflect on the award-winning novel, "Ilustrado," which won a Palanca and the Man Asian Literary Prize as an unpublished manuscript in 2008. Published in New York this year, its soft-bound Philippine edition (ISBN 978-0-374-94103-1) is already a best-seller in the local bookstores. The novel is a complex and difficult work written with much cleverness by Miguel Syjuco, a young overseas Filipino writer who was born and raised in Manila and lives in Montreal, Canada.
Miguel is an Ateneo alumnus whose parents, ex-TESDA chief Augusto 'Boboy' and Cong. Judy Syjuco, have taken turns in getting elected as Member of the House of Representatives for the 2nd district of Iloilo province since 1998.
"Ilustrado" hints at the hope for inner peace for members of the Philippine ruling and intellectual elite who want to be enlightened bearers of light but are tormented by a mixture of private failures and their “shared guilt” for the arrogance, narcissism, hedonism, and mediocrity that have turned the country into an anarchy of clans and classes.
The novel achieves what one minor character comments: it speaks truth to power without boring the readers but making them laugh periodically and hopefully at themselves. This is achieved through a rich and sometimes dizzying combination of classic and contemporary literary styles and forms such as jokes, blog comments, email, and fragments of songs, poems, essays, interviews, short stories, and biographies.
Like all brilliant works, this novel contains a few minor mistakes (besides the wrong spelling of Juan Luna’s 1884 masterpiece, the Spoliarium, which Syjuco acknowledged during a book launch organized by the National Book Development Board last April 14).
In one section, the protagonist appropriately or provocatively named Miguel Syjuco switches on the cable tv and does channel surfing like the way the novel shifts from one literary form to another. After changing channels 14 times, “a Portuguese nun discusses the beatitudes, quoting from the Gospel of St. John. Blessed are the meek, she says.” He changes channel 6 more times.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” can be found in the Gospel of Matthew (5:5) and in no other Gospel. For many of his believers and non-believers, the beatitudes of Jesus are absurd or unrealistic teachings, as these seem to glorify weakness, poverty, and misfortune. Like what the apostle Paul would say about the Crucified Christ, the beatitudes represent, for many, either a scandal or folly in practice.
Among the evils that another protagonist, Syjuco’s mentor Crispin Salvador, wants to expose is “the sin of omission” of members of the elite who, in their despair over the persistent eruptive state of the nation, “shuttered their homes, huddled inside, read scripture, and waited” for God to act. Similarly in Philippine fiction writing, there is “an underlying cultural faith in deus ex machina: God coming from the sky to make things right or more wrong.”
We should curse the meekness that means mere submissiveness or passivity, denies persons their right to protest injustice, and stems really from cowardice.
Another kind of meekness, however, is noble. It stems from wisdom and courage such as what Jesus of Nazareth showed, for though he went around in Galilee speaking powerful and wise words to both the lowly and the mighty, he was known to be “meek and humble in heart” even as he publicly denounced the hypocrisy of persons in authority who did not practice what they preached (Matthew 11:29; 23:3).
If Jesus' meekness was weakness and submissiveness, the authorities would not have bothered to have him arrested and killed in a shameful manner.
Every educated or intelligent citizen who wants to see radical change in society will come closer to pure enlightenment and inner peace when he examines himself humbly, honestly and regularly, and does this at least as often as he corrects others for their unethical behavior. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).