Noli Me Tangere: Yesterday’s news

Noli Me Tangere, José Rizal, 1887

  • Philippines, #7
  • paperback, received as a gift
  • Read October 2017
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Recommended for: Harriet Beecher Stowe fan clubs

06Polaroid025José Rizal is perhaps the single most important figure in the literature of the Philippines (Google describes him as a “Filipino ophthalmologist,” which is not technically incorrect, but is kind of like describing Barack Obama as an “American attorney”). His duology of novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, inspired the Philippine revolution, earning him a martyrdom at the hands of a Spanish firing squad and making him a national hero. His works are required reading in the Philippines—“Philippine Institutions 100,” known as “the Rizal course,” is a required course in the University of the Philippines—and his life and ideas so well known that he has become a mythological figure. According to Ambeth Ocampo, who has written enough newspaper columns about Rizal to comprise two book-length collections, Rizal’s life has become so shrouded in myth that it is subject to ridiculous rumors—“most famous are the ones that claim Rizal was the father of Adolf Hitler and that he never wore a Barong Tagalog” (the Philippine national dress). I started to read the first of Ocampo’s collections (Rizal Without the Overcoat) but not having the Rizal-saturated context of a Filipino education, I lost interest pretty quickly and ended up abandoning it about six essays in. I did find it interesting to try to think of an American figure who was equivalent to Rizal—someone of both historical and literary significance, whose works are read by every secondary school student in the country, and who would be interesting enough to the general public that a newspaper column devoted to the minutiae of their daily life would remain in demand for decades. Maybe Hugh Hefner? That’s the best I can come up with.

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Anyway, Rizal was inspired to write the Noli, as it’s known in the Philippines, in part by the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the book follows that model in a way—i.e., perhaps more valued for its social impact than its lasting literary merit. When I tried to remember back to this book to write this blog post the only things that came to my mind were evil Spanish priests and someone getting crushed by a falling stone at a building site. I keep mixing it up with F. Sionil José’s Dusk, the plot of which also hinges on evil Spanish priests but which is, to my mind, a vastly superior work of fiction. Despite its revolutionary nature, Rizal’s novel suffers from 19th century conventionality: an aristocratic hero, a pure and perfect heroine, a scenery-chewingly evil villain, melodrama and then some. It was fine, but I didn’t particularly relish reading it, and I wasn’t eager to start on the sequel. But maybe that’s just my American philistinism speaking.

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