The novel begins when the body of Crispin Salvador, the “Panther of Philippine Letters” is found floating in New York’s Hudson River. Police investigations, as well as opinions from the Philippine literary circle, and bloggers, concluded that Crispin committed suicide. Some are even saying that he staged his own death. Miguel, being a friend and a student of Crispin Salvador, could not accept this. He believed too that his mentor’s writings, particularly the yet-to-be published expose novel, The Bridges Ablaze, may possibly have something to do with his death. So Miguel ransacks Crispin’s apartment in search of the manuscript only to find the usual things and some notes that mentioned five names. Baffled, Miguel decides to investigate further on Crispin’s life and search for the controversial novel that he believes to be hidden in the Philippines.
"How can anyone estimate the ballistic qualities of words? Invisible things happen in intangible moments. What should keep us writing is precisely that possibility of explosions."
The elements of a floating cadaver, missing manuscript and a protagonist in quest can mislead the readers into thinking that Ilustrado is a typical mystery novel. However, the novel ended with an unexpected twist that can leave a reader either shocked or irritated. For that reason, Ilustrado does not seem to fit as a mystery novel, but it does make it any less deserving of its recognition as a Man Asian Literary Prize winner.
The impact of the novel, it seems, is on how it created a fictional Philippines that is, at the same time, so close to reality, that it is almost mocking Philippine society. The author deliberately named his protagonist, Miguel and gave him a background that is similar to his; Miguel is raised in the Philippines and later sent to study in the US. The novel also used fictional names like Changco and Lupas that sound like the real-life elite surnames: Cojuangco and Lopez. The novel also mentions coup d'etat, rallies, bombings, flooded streets, stolen manhole covers, and spiritual and political leaders living in exclusive subdivisions -- things are very real in the Philippines but bizarre to readers who are not familiar with the country.
To further confuse the readers between reality and fiction, the supposed dead character of Crispin Salvador was made omnipresent throughout the novel. The author presented snippets of Crispin's interviews, literary works, Miguel’s recollection, and the draft of Eight Lives Lived, a biography of Crispin. These writings, complete with footnotes, is the style of narration in Ilustrado. It is not conventional and it quickly transitions from an excerpt in Crispin’s work to Miguel’s point of view. This narration may sometimes confuse and fool readers into believing that Crispin Salvador does exist in Philippine literary. This narrative style also allows readers to be pulled further into different stories, with separate settings and characters; from war-torn Manila to its globalized state; from Crispin’s life as a communist rebel to being a writer-in-exile. All those stories, like puzzle pieces, when joined together, shows Crispin as a rebel who questions patriarchal culture and corrupted socio-political structures.
Ilustrado is a novel filled with caricatures, metaphorical short stories, jokes, and phrases that are more like rants. It gives a rare and cruelly honest depiction of the modern Philippine society that has grown complex with the coexistence of expats, working mass, old rich families, politicians and evangelists, that moves in a country that is still searching for its identity.