It starts with a bang. “There was to be a public execution, and consequently the streets and buildings were hung with flags. A day of execution was a fiesta.”
If one were writing a biography of Rizal, the day of his execution wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It is the defining moment; besides, it is the most celebrated event in an eventful life. No use keeping it till the end.
A phrase leaps up, recommends itself to memory: “It was the tropics’ apology for winter, the start of another warm blue day …” A detail engagingly imagined (or so I imagine) makes a vivid impression: “the hems of their long skirts [even ladies turn out before 7 am to watch the execution] dampened a little here and there by the dew which still lay on the grass.”
But the rest of the Introduction makes for slow reading. In part, it must be the dated attitudes, which force me to shift in my chair or look up from the book. “His eyes … came out to meet whomever they looked at, as European eyes do.” Or: “He had very little European blood, yet in the broad forehead, the high, straight nose, the firm chin and perceptive lips, could be sensed at once a mental affinity to Europe, expressed through an Asian physique.” [And what, exactly, are Rizal’s lips perceiving?)
But in part it must also be the sweeping statements, the straining-after-universality of a frustrated novelist, that effectively postpone the suspension of disbelief, the reader’s willing embrace of the author. “As he passed, there was silence, while people stared, some in surprise, others with concern, and all with the uneasy sense of being confronted by something they did not fully understand.” All? Every single one?
In the succeeding chapters in Part I, Coates indulges this suspect gift too.
In I: “Comparison with other countries, other histories and other contemporary events are the essence of ideas and change …” Is comparison, in fact, the essence of change?
In IV: “A crucial moment in family life often precipitates a wise decision, one that has perhaps lain somewhere beneath the surface, unable to find expression.” Well, yes, but it can also, and perhaps even more often, precipitate unwise decisions —- precisely because of the pressure of the moment.
In V: “It is a truism that men who achieve something notable in their lives are born at the right time and place.” I certainly think that heroes rise to the occasion; in that sense, they ARE at the right time and place. But surely the accident of birth is another matter. Churchill was an old man when he finally became Prime Minister; it took a Galileo to complete Copernicus’ revolution.