Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book 105, the Philippines: "Noli Me Tangere" by José Rizal

In case you haven't heard of José Rizal, well, he was a freakin' genius, that's who he was. Look him up. Lived in Spain's most backwater colony in the 19th century but nonetheless learned 22 languages; found employ as "an ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright and journalist"; while also dabbling in "architecture, cartography, economics, ethnology, anthropology, sociology, dramatics, martial arts, fencing and pistol shooting".

Oh, and he did that all before he was executed at the age of 35 on 30 December 1896, thus igniting the Philippine Revolution. Way more than just a martyr: he was one of the great modern thinkers of Asia, in the league of Sun Yat-Sen and Tagore. Amazing. 

The way he fomented his ideas, of course, was through his novels, which are studied by every kid in the Philippines today (in English or Tagalog translation from the original Spanish). And the wonderful thing is that the Noli ages well: because he published it in Europe for the benefit of those who didn't know about colonial abuses, what he does is he provides a thorough ethnographic sketch of his homeland at the time, which is just as fascinatingly foreign to us 21st century people as it would've been to the Iberians. 

Y'see, seems that the Philippines was a friarocracy - its priests outranked the Spanish colonial officers in practice if not on paper. Rizal (an atheist!) highlights the crazy hypocrisy that this birthed: sales of indulgences, inflated fees for sermons in languages the laity can't understand, an utter lack of interest in uplifting the population in any way through education, and a sense of being an invulnerable caste - you don't tip your hat to them in the street, they excommunicate you, and the rest of the sheep-like population looks upon you with scorn.

No idea if the Franciscans and Dominicans and Jesuits were really as nasty as described in the book, but absolute power corrupts absolutely, so I've a feeling the answer's yup. 

There's deep shades of Uncle Tom's Cabin here: from the stock characters (the noble hero Don Crisostomo Ibarra, the virtuous heroine María Clara, the evil priests Father Dámaso and Fray Sibyla, the revolutionary Elías) to the sheer purpleness of the prose when tragedy strikes. But there's also a Dickensian joy in descriptions of the follies of people (Doña Victorina, who pretends to be Spanish and murders the language whenever she speaks it, and takes it all out on her actually Spanish husband by pulling the false teeth from his mouth). Also maybe a Wilkie Collins-esque touch of melodrama - the nail-biting death scenes, the apparition of the ragged nun on the convent rooftop - and remember, Rizal, the genius bugger, probably read all these guys and digested them.

Lor, no wonder the Philippines is so creative. If only our country was founded on the bulletwound of a polymath poet. One last note: this book is good, but it ain't light reading - might be a while till I move on to the sequel, El Filibusterismo.

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Representative quote: "You're right, Elías, but man is a creature of circumstance. I was blind then, disgusted, what did I know! Now misfortune has ripped off my blinders. Solitude and the misery of prison have shown me. Now I see the horrible cancer gnawing at this society, rotting its flesh, almost begging for a violent extirpation. They opened my eyes, they made me see the sores and forced me to become a criminal! And so, just what they wanted, I will become a subversive, but a true subversive. I will call together all the downtrodden people, everyone who feels a heart beating in his heart, those how sent you to me... No, I won't be a criminal, you aren't a criminal when you fight for your country, just the opposite! For three centuries we have held out our hand to them, asked them for love, eager to call them brothers, and how do they answer us? With insults and mocking, denying us even the status of human beings. There is no God, no hope, no humanity, nothing more than the rights of power!"

Next book:  Henrique de Senna Fernandes's The Bewitching Braid, from Macau.

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