Back in junior high school, I borrowed my cousin’s red textbook with Jose Rizal’s portrait on the front cover for my Filipino class. It is not his biography, but yes, there are biographical notes that are part of the book’s introduction. We are to read this book, Noli Me Tangere, for the remaining months of that school year. Prior to that, we tackled various literary works in Filipino. These are classic plays and short stories, such as Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti (The Story of Mabuti – Mabuti is translated as Good, but in the story’s context, it is best to retain the Filipino word) by Genoveva Edroza-Matute, Moses, Moses by Rogelio Sikat, Mabangis na Lungsod (Savage City) by Efren Abueg, and Walang Panginoon (Godless) by Deogracias Rosario.
I thoroughly enjoyed these, and I thought that they were good materials to prepare us for the reading of probably the single and most quintessential novel that the Philippines will ever produce. Noli Me Tangere, our national hero’s magnum opus, is an important work that it is a required reading in Philippine high schools. Set during the Spanish colonial rule, it satirizes the Manila society of the late 19th century. It is also a searing observation of the Church’s unbecoming behavior towards the Filipinos. Written because of Rizal’s want for reforms, the novel exposes the abuses that the Spanish officials and friars heaped upon our ancestors in political, social, and yes, religious aspects.
As it is with most books that we are forced to read, a lot of us high schoolers didn’t take it seriously. This is one of the reasons that there seems to be a need to reread the novel not as a student trying to merely graduate. I, however, had a different experience with it. I enjoyed every chapter of the novel and it inspired patriotic feelings in me. I also found myself thanking my lucky stars for not being born during the Spanish colonial rule.
So it is with a little anxiety that I reread the book. I do not want to destroy my feelings for it because I know I have changed so much as a reader. More so, it is hard as a Filipino not to glorify the novel. We owe it our independence. It enlightened the enduring masses and helped spark the Philippine Revolution. We might have been still called indios had this historical event not taken place.
How many books in the world were able to do that? Not a big bunch, right? It is indeed a rare feat, so yes, the pen proves again and again that it is mightier than whatever sharp-edged or exploding weapon that you can take a hold of. But I wonder, how does it affect foreign readers? How would non-Filipinos feel if they read it? Would they even bother to read it?
Are the themes in the novel still relevant in the modern 21st century?
“Elías, your bitter words have pierced my heart. They also cause me to doubt. What would you have me do? I have not been brought up among the people whose needs, perhaps, I am not aware of. I spent my childhood in a Jesuit school, I grew up in Europe, I have been developed by books and I have read only what men have been able to bring to light. What remains behind in the shadows, what writers failed to write about, I ignore. For all that, I love, as you do, our country, not only because it is the duty of each man to love the country to which he owes his being and which, perhaps, should be his last refuge, not only because my father had taught me thus, because my mother was a native and because all my most lovely memories dwell in her; I love her besides because I owe her and will owe her my happiness!”
“And I because I owe her my misfortune!” murmured Elías.
Noli Me Tangere is, at the core, the love story of Crisostomo Ibarra, a rich and educated Filipino, and Maria Clara, the ideal Filipina. Their marriage is thwarted by meddling friars and the turbulent politics of that time. Ibarra, upon his return from his studies in Europe, finds out that his father died while in prison. To make matters worse, his grave was desecrated and his body was thrown somewhere else. He sets these aside and continues to dream of a better future for the Filipinos by building a school. Attempts on his life are taken, and thanks to the vehement warnings of the revolutionary Elias, his more or less unrefined counterpart, his life is saved.
Ibarra and Elias both love the country so both hope for a better one, but they believe in different means to achieve it. The former goes for peaceful negotiations while the latter is up for necessary evils. We read about their political and philosophical insights throughout the novel, and with these, its intentions are realized.
Now, let me say something as a reader who picks up his books for entertainment. On my second reading, I found out that there are many parts where some characters are given a good number of pages to declaim about their political opinions. The plot development is rather slow, and I think there are a number of characters that could be taken out without affecting the outcome of the novel. In fact, one chapter was taken out from the original manuscript during the first publication due to financial matters.
The verb tense also shifts from past to present to past, and the narrative voice can get annoying with its jumpiness and inclination to gossip and disregard for the more important things that are already at hand. It takes pleasure in relating events that cancels the suspense built on the preceding ones. Okay, I feel that I’ve committed a great deal of blasphemy just by pointing these out, but as I mentioned, I am now giving my take on it as a reader.
And it’s funny. I should have better understood the novel or should have appreciated it more, no? This just goes to show that second readings are entirely different and separate experiences from the first. I trudged through it really slowly, like a fully clothed man dragging himself through thick mud. It was only at the last parts that I appreciated it again.
But when I think of the writer’s intentions, these little nuances can be forgiven. The readers of that time had more patience to deal with the more florid parts of the novel, so probably the book could have been pitch-perfect. But really, what’s perfect about this novel is what it achieved. Its voice still resounds that remembrance of what the Philippines used to be. That there were friars who sexually abused our women. That there were town officials who senselessly tortured our men. That there were civil guards who mercilessly shot our children. That there were Filipinos who looked down on their fellow countrymen. That there were Filipinos who dreamed of independence. That there were Filipinos who suffered and struggled for it.
So there. Although this novel can manage to be enjoyable, it is not read only because of that. For foreigners, it’s a look into another culture and a supplementary study in Asian history. For us, it’s a reexamination of our roots and an appreciation of our identities as Filipinos. And for all, it’s a reminder to value our independence and to shield it from modern day oppressors.