Coates seeks to put Rizal in his proper place among Asia’s pioneer nationalists. He may at times err on the side of hagiography —- “Every one of his early ideas had to be evolved in silence, his only aid being books and his own observation” —- but then who can fail to be impressed by Rizal’s many qualities?
He is compelling in his treatment of Tagalog poetry, and its role in Rizal’s relationship with his mother and the hero’s own role in the making of a nation. A Tagalog poem Rizal wrote when he was eight, for instance, “embodies Rizal’s earliest known revolutionary utterance —- that Tagalog was the equal of Spanish, English, Latin or any other language, and that moreover it was the Filipinos’ own.”
He reminds us of Rizal’s scrupulousness in the handling of facts, a discipline he learned from his own family’s example. “If he ever told a lie in his life there is no reliable evidence of it. The volumes of his correspondence are in content a monument of factual accuracy.”
He fully evokes Rizal’s first infatuation (with Segunda Catigbac, of Lipa; surely a member of the famous Katigbak clan) and Rizal’s first love (Leonor Rivera, she of the almond eyes, the devoted correspondence).
He recreates the hero’s student days at the Ateneo Municipal and at UST —- with a bit of help from Rizal’s own student memoirs.
Above all, in these first chapters, he captures the uncertainty, the “medieval twilight,” of a distant colony ruled by friars.
“In the Spanish Philippines there was no such thing as public opinion, still less divergent lines of it … There was in fact no opinion; it was as simple as that. There was God’s will, as made known by Spanish friars.”
And: “The scene of Rizal’s youth is set in the brilliant sunlight of the tropics; but the mental climate in which people moved was one of perpetual semi-darkness, a medieval twilight in which nothing could be seen clearly, nothing was known for sure, and no one could decide or move on a determined course because no one could say where they were going.”
It is a semi-darkness those of us who lived through martial rule, a hundred years after Rizal was in school, remember all too well.