Column: Forward, attack, lunge!

A modified lecture, with poem included. Published on August 2, 2011.

To accompany his own Indonesian translation of “Ultimo Adios,” which appeared in the Dec. 30, 1944 issue of Asia Raya, Rosihan Anwar wrote “Jose Rizal,” a short poem of 21 lines. My dictionary-enabled, Google-translated modified free version of the poem reads as follows:

The rifle explodes, a single bullet

Penetrates the body; the man falls!

So too fall noble ideals;

independence, its spirit flickering,

As the man closes his eyes.

The man’s body lies on the earth’s lap

That precious man

Broken, shattered into dust

But the spirit which the man showed

Is incarnate in the fragrant bloom.

Years pass and now and then

Air rustles across the man’s grave

O, poet, hero of the nation.

But

Now the man rises again

Incarnate in the body of the nation

In the breast of every youth,

I hear the man’s voice

Loud, powerful, mighty,

Inviting the nation to continue the struggle:

“Philippines, forward, attack, lunge!!!”

Perhaps the original would be better served if I conveyed more of the honor contained in the honorific toean or tuan, which appears eight times. My own appreciation of the nuances of the word is due almost entirely to a reading of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet. But when I showed Pak Rosihan a notice in the Dec. 29, 1944 issue of Asia Raya announcing a reading of Rizal’s final poem by “toean Rosihan Anwar,” I saw his face quicken as he recalled the experience. Translating the word as, say, “gentleman,” would I think weigh the lines down, but it might help impress upon the reader the special status Rizal’s European education gave him. Rizal was a man apart.

The middle stanzas echo the images that Rosihan borrowed from Rizal to great effect in his translation of “Ultimo Adios.” The notion, for instance, that the dead man’s spirit “Is incarnate in the fragrant bloom” repeats Rizal’s own stirring image:

… when you see

a sprig of flower bloom from a crack

smiling, blushing,

touch it with your lips

because that is my soul.

I must stress that this English rendering is thrice-refracted: it is Rosihan’s retranslation into English of his Indonesian translation of an English version of the Spanish original! (We must also add another layer of complication: my own editing of Rosihan’s retranslation.)

But this much is clear: Rosihan’s “Jose Rizal” is both a tribute to the martyr and an explication of his martyrdom, and what that might mean to the youthful reader in occupied Jakarta. The vivid reimagining of the rifle’s single bullet helps the reader visualize the otherwise alien scene of an execution in Spanish colonial Manila; the immediate reference to kemerdekaan bangsa locates Rizal’s story in the here and now, when restless Indonesian youths were already dreaming of ultimate independence.

We should note that Rosihan saw himself, at least in those early years, as both poet and journalist. When he passed away last April, with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visiting the wake at his home, he was remembered as a leading journalist and a historical figure. But in fact he also self-identified as a literary man, writing short stories and poems during the war and in the years of the Indonesian revolution, and even coining the term for which an entire corps of writers became known: Angkatan ’45—that is, the Generation of 1945.

But in December 1944, at a time when much of the news circulating in Jakarta was about Douglas MacArthur’s advance through the Philippines, and the pages were full of exhortations about the virtues of the so-called kamikaze spirit, Rosihan saw Rizal as risen again, “Incarnate in the body of the nation.”

What I find remarkable in the poem is the persona’s reading of Rizal’s contemporary message:

I hear the man’s voice

Loud, powerful, mighty,

Inviting the nation to continue the struggle:

“Philippines, forward, attack, lunge!!!”

How, I would like to know, did these lines ever pass the Japanese censors? I understand that in the months since the so-called Koiso Declaration of September 7, 1944, when the new Japanese prime minister officially pledged to grant independence to Indonesia, there was a slackening of controls or, at the least, a greater reliance on Indonesian collaborators in the censor’s office. That is how Rosihan explained to me why his translation of Rizal’s poem of useful martyrdom did not meet any objection from the censors. But the last lines of his original poem do not suggest a martyr’s death, however glorious. Instead, they come across as an encouragement to the Filipinos to continue the struggle for independence.

It is possible that the censors saw the poem’s final appeal as conforming with the Japanese imperial project: ATR in newspaper shorthand then, which stood for Asia Timoer Raya, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and which defines “true” independence as a concert of equal nations under Japanese leadership. Rizal’s “loud, powerful, mighty” message then would have been understood as an exhortation to the Filipinos to continue to resist the American reoccupation of the Philippines.

I doubt, however, whether the poem’s readers saw it that way.

In this 1944 poem, we see Rizal in a different light: He has been reimagined as a ghostly general urging his troops on, a warrior with a battle cry on his lips: “Forward, attack, lunge!”

Excerpted from a lecture read at the Yuchengco Museum

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s