//Recorded in the history of human suffering are cancers of such malignant character that even minor contact aggravates them, engendering overwhelming pain. How often, in the midst of modern civilizations have I wanted to bring you into the discussion, sometimes to recall these memories, sometimes to compare you to other countries, so often that your beloved image became to me like a social cancer.//
Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo by José Rizal have been on my reading list for quite some time now. Affectionately referred to in the Philippines as the Noli and the Fili, these two books are celebrated as one of the most significant parts of Rizal’s legacy.
My interest in Rizal did not come from an anticolonial standpoint but from one of regional identity. As I read Revolutionary Spirit for the occasion of Rizal's 125th death anniversary, I got the sense of urgency to read Rizal's own works.
I ordered a copy of each book published by Penguin, translated by Harold Augenbraum. Reading took a while, and has been a fulfilling experience. An attempt to review such a widely and thoroughly studied piece of literature like the Noli duology would be suicide; I have nothing to offer in this blog post beyond my afterthoughts as a humble admirer of Rizal.
The back cover refers to the Noli as "The novel that sparked the Philippine revolution." Upon finishing the novel I could understand why. As one would expect, the novels are full of rhetoric in the character's dialogues and sometimes in the form of sarcasm on the narrator's part.
After seven years of studying abroad in Europe, the protagonist Crisóstomo Ibarra returns to his hometown San Diego with noble ideals. He was back to marry his childhood sweetheart María Clara, and proposed to build a new school in the town. In this process, he would come to learn the truth of his father’s death as well as the many dark sides of his homeland under Spanish rule.
If Noli Me Tángere gave me goosebumps of melancholy, then El Filibusterismo sent me cold shivers of vengeance. Rizal dedicated the Fili specifically to the three local priests: Don Mariano Gomez, Don Jose Burgos, and Don Jacinto Zamora. Collectively referred to as “GomBurZa”, they were executed on 17 February 1872 on alleged involvement in the Cavite Mutiny earlier that year.
The sequel brings in a longer list of characters, each of them interesting in their own right. Instead of a singular protagonist returning from the Peninsula, here the story centers around a group of young and passionate students educated in Manila, the most notable of which are Isagani, Makaraig, and Basilio from the prequel. El Fili is a story of desperados; honest people with good intentions, oppressed and forced to take drastic actions - of which Kabesang Tales is the prime example.
As much as Rizal criticizes the Spaniards, he also pokes at the backwardness of the indios in his era - their views on education, on marriage, on indulgences, and so on. The two novels are, in some sense, an ethnography of the Spanish Philippines. They address many of the social issues from wealth to justice. Perhaps this is the reason why in addition to the literal Touch Me Not and The Subversive, some translated the titles aptly as The Social Cancer and Reign of Greed.
I finished the novels feeling unsatisfied - there was so much I wanted to know. As with most fictions, it took me a while to remember the long list of characters in the books. Once I was actually done with reading, however, I wished there were more to many of the characters in the story.
What exactly did Father Dámaso do to María Clara's mother and Crisóstomo’s father? I wished there could have been more of the three ladies too: María Clara, Julí, and Paulita Gomez. How did they grow up? What was it about them that made them so attractive in the eyes of their suitors? There could be a whole Noli-Fili universe based on the stories of all these characters - it certainly would arouse my interest more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe and whatnot.
We have to realize that Rizal wrote the novels not for the sake of art intrinsically, but politics. As John Nery would detail in his book Revolutionary Spirit, Rizal himself was unsatisfied with his two novels. “I want to write a novel in the modern sense of the term — an artistic and literary novel. This time I want to sacrifice politics and everything for art,” Rizal wrote in a letter to Blumentritt in 1892. Sadly, he did not live to finish this new novel he had set out to.
We often brand the Noli-Fili with a broad label of anti-colonial literature, yet there is far more nuance to that. We should credit Rizal specifically for shedding light on the religious orders which came to dominate the colonial experience in the Spanish East Indies.
The friars are a phenomenon very unique to the Philippines - before reading this I had no idea what the Augustinians, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans meant. Whereas in British and Dutch colonies we would see trade companies as the major players, the religious orders are the ones in charge in the Spanish East Indies. After all, the Philippines is the only Catholic country in Asia apart from Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony (a comparison between the religious-colonial experiences of these two countries would make a good potential blog post).
As the novels show us, the actual power these friars wield exceeds even that of the governors’. Civil servants from the metropole come and go, but the friars are here to stay forever. They are the moral authority, they control the education system and they extort money from the population. Even the governor would be restrained by them, for they lack an in-depth understanding of the lands they govern and have no choice but to listen to whatever the friars feed them. I am not a Catholic myself and certainly did not grow up in the Philippines, as such Noli-Fili was my first time being exposed to this topic, a noteworthy part of Southeast Asian history.
Between Noli and Fili
In many ways the Noli and the Fili are like mirrors to each other. Both books are based around projects of education: the former a school initiated by Ibarra, the latter a Castilian academy advocated by a group of students. Every Christmas is a tragedy and nothing goes smoothly - not even conspiracies. Nobody gets a happy ending under Rizal's pen - that is, except for the most trivial of characters.
At the same time, one could also clearly see a theme of change in the progression from Noli to Fili. The events are set thirteen years apart, and many of the original characters have undergone significant changes. The poor kid Basilio grew up to become a medical student; Captain Tiago, from one of the most respected men in town, died a miserable drug addict.
Let's not forget that Rizal himself also went through much change: the sequel was published during his second time abroad and this time he had even more adventures: he traveled through Japan and traversed the United States; he spent time researching in London and read Multatuli’s Max Havelaar. In this process he was exposed to a breadth of ideas and made references to them throughout the second novel, the most amusing one to me being a sarcastic note citing Darwin:
//Unconsciously, Paulita had complied with the laws Darwin had discovered, in spades. The female gives herself to the most able male, who understands how to adapt to the medium in which he lives,//
Rizal did not write in Tagalog, his mother tongue - the originals were written in Spanish, the oppressor's language, and there is a significant meaning to that as Harold Augenbraum writes in the translator's introduction to the Fili: It was Rizal’s literary language, the only one in which the book could have a political impact.
I always make an effort to read in the original language whenever possible. For this I began learning Spanish for a while, until I decided that it was unsustainable for me to intensively study two languages (I was studying Thai) on top of my other commitments at the time. It would take years for me to be able to fully understand a sophisticated piece of literature like Rizal's novel, and I wanted to read Noli-Fili as soon as I could. Gradually I found consolation in the fact that even my counterparts in the Philippines would not be reading in the original language either.
For the English readers like me out there, I would definitely recommend Harold Augenbraum's translation. My money was well spent not just because I could keep the two classics in my collection permanently, but also for the Augenbraum's Introductions in both books - which I revisited upon finishing the novels.
Noli and Fili should be made a compulsory reading for all students of Southeast Asia - I regretted not reading them as soon as I enrolled in my first Southeast Asian politics class. While colonialism in its traditional sense is gone in the region, its remnants are still visible even up till today.
The dialogues in the two novels, especially the sequel, spoke of how the colony's education policy (or the lack of one) corrupted the souls of the Indios. Three centuries of Spanish colonialism left behind a malicious legacy yet to be undone. Even if one is completely uninterested in the history of a neighboring country, the two novels offer plenty of lessons for governance and self-reflection.
Rizal's novels are full of powerful quotes - if you flipped through my copies, you would find underlined sentences in every other page. I am now as old as when Rizal started writing the Noli - there is no way I would be able to write anything comparable to his magnum opus; I only pray that I could learn and grow as much as Rizal did when he was my age.