A Novelist’s Diagnosis

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

That is the title of Chapter 9 of “The First Filipino,’ the prize-winning biography of Dr. Jose Rizal, written by the late Ambassador Leon Maria Guerrero. Anvil won a grant from the National Book Development Board to publish a Filipino translation. I was honored to have been chosen to translate this lovely book into the native tongue.

What made Rizal write his novel, “Noli me Tangere,” the first in a twin-bill that changed the Philippines? In a letter to the painter Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo, Rizal wrote: “I have laughed about our misfortunes because nobody wanted to weep with me.” That is one index of the novelist’s aims -- to write a satirical novel filled with painful truths.

He had been toying with the idea of a book. He had proposed the idea to the Filipino expatriates in Madrid, but nothing came of it. “But the idea of writing a novel himself must have grown on him. It would be… a long and serious work, exercising his mind and hand. He would call it ‘Noli me Tángere.” He seems to have told no one in his family about his grand design; it is not mentioned in his correspondence until the book is completed….”

Rizal wrote voluminous letters to his family and friends, and we can glean the novel’s genesis in some of them.

“With the sincerity and impartiality of which a man is capable in looking over his past,” he told his former teacher, the Jesuit Father Pastells, “I have turned my eyes to the fresh years of my youth and I have asked myself if at any time resentment moved the pen that wrote ‘Noli me Tángere,’ and my memory has answered no … I was still young, I was quicker to forgive than I am now and, however deep the wounds, they were healed in the end, thanks to the mildness of my character. There were no ‘festering wounds’ or ‘thorns that dug deeper and deeper.’ What there was was a clear-sighted look at the realities in my native country, the vivid memory of what was happening, and sufficient accuracy in determining the cause of the disease, so that I not only pictured the past but also guessed the future…”

In this history of the Filipino novel, the “Noli” had two predecessors: Father Jose Burgos’s “La Loba Negra” and Pedro Paterno’s “Ninay.” Burgos influenced Rizal and several echoes of the “Loba” resonate in Rizal’s novels. But the melodramatic tale of a widow riding through the night in quest of vengeance is fantastic and removed from the “realities” of Philippine life.

“Ninay” is a more interesting parallel because it is the novel that Rizal might have written “had it not been for the events of 1872,” when the three Filipino priests were martyred at Bagumbayan Field. The parallel between the two plots is obvious, with revenge as the focal point.

How did Rizal feel about the critical reception to his novels?

He would resent criticism of his novels but afterwards, depressed in Hong Kong, he would admit to his friend, Dr. Ferdinand Blumentritt, that they were not wholly works of art. The theme of personal revenge, typical of the Dumas stories that Rizal loved, particularly “The Count of Monte Cristo,” is unworthy of a great patriotic novel. One is inclined to doubt the sincerity of Rizal’s denial to Father Pastells that resentment fueled the “Noli;” for indeed, resentment, anger, rancor and hatred are the mainsprings of the novel’s action.

How does Ambassador Guerrero weigh in on the ‘Noli’?

He called the novel’s plot theatrical, in keeping with the theatrical times, and “there would be nothing more theatrical than Rizal’s own death or the revolutionary conspiracy that he inspired.” The main characters are stereotypes. Ibarra and Elías in particular are mere mouthpieces of Rizal; they are Rizal debating with himself. But Guerrero praises how the ‘minor characters’ are drawn, for they are more important in revealing the ‘realities’ of the country. They are full-blooded portraits that fascinate the reader until now.

“What marvelous fun they are and how accurately observed and drawn! The Spanish friars could possibly have forgiven Rizal, his Ibarra and his María Clara, his Elías, or even his scholar Tasio, for all his theories on the origins of the doctrine of Purgatory; but they could never have forgiven him the sardonic portraits of Father Sibyla, the elegant Dominican quibbler, Father Dámaso, the blustering gluttonous peasant Franciscan with a daughter doubly illegitimate, sacrilegious and adulterous, or Father Salví, the scheming and frustrated lecher, a cassocked ‘Peeping Tom.’

“Rizal was only slightly kinder to his countrymen. It is not only a tribute to his skill as a writer but also a proof that Filipino society has not changed much since his day that we recognize in ourselves and our contemporaries: the self-made and self-seeking Capitán Tiago, always careful to be on the winning side, brow-beaten yet vain, a cuckolded lecher, loyal without convictions, religious without a conscience, an egotist without an ego; or Doña Victorina and Doña Consolacíon, haunted by class and color complexes, typical wives of politicians and army officers… or any number of other brilliantly observed characters: the vice-mayor who cannot bear to think of resigning, the mayor who will not think of acting like a mayor, the college graduate spouting his barbarous Latin, the peasants dreaming of sons who will eat with knives and forks, the lieutenant eager to slaughter dissidents to win promotion, even perhaps the pious spinsters wondering if it will be lewd to mix male Our Fathers and female Hail Marys.”

Rizal’s friends thought they recognized many of these characters. Dr. Máximo Viola, who was with Rizal when the latter wrote the final draft and corrected the proofs, recalls that Rizal told him that “many of the characters were his relatives and friends.” Rizal himself told Blumentritt that “the Filipinos would find here their history in the last ten years.” Whether based on fact or purely fiction, these creations are enough to make the “Noli” the first real Filipino novel -- and one that changed the destiny of the Philippines.

*      *      *

Copies of “The First Filipino” are available at National Book Store and online at Anvil Publishing and Shopee. Email: [email protected] Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” has been published by Penguin Books.

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