Column: Saving Rizal

Published on December 29, 2009.

AT LEAST TWICE A YEAR, I SEIZE THE CHANCE to write about Rizal. As an opinion writer, I have long since come to the conclusion that the Philippines is incomprehensible without reference to the patriot and polymath. I have also belatedly come to realize, in the last two years or so, that Rizal is indispensable to an understanding of the modern democratic project.

One quick example: the classic arguments for a free press are derived from American constitutional history. But I have only lately come to appreciate the difference in Rizal’s own home-grown arguments (and those of Del Pilar too) for freedom of the press.

It is vital, then, to save Rizal both from the “veneration without understanding” that Renato Constantino warned us against a long time ago, and the “understanding without relevance” (to coin a phrase) that alienates younger generations.

* * *A hundred and thirteen years ago today, the two factions of the Katipunan in Cavite met in Imus to discuss, among other pressing matters, a plan to rescue Rizal the next day from the firing squad. “Napag-usapan din at binalak na mailigtas si Dr. Jose Rizal; agawin sa mga Kaaway na babaril sa susunod na araw, ika-30 ng Disyembre, 1896,” Santiago Alvarez, commander-in-chief of the Magdiwang army, recollected in “Ang Katipunan at Paghihimagsik,” the memoirs he serialized in Sampagita magazine from 1927 to 1928. He continued: “ipinangako ng Heneral Apoy ang pagpapadala ng mga kawal na sandatahan ng baraw sa buong magdamag ng gabing iyon, sa Maynila, na ihahalo sa mga magsisipanood ng pagbaril at tutugon sa biglaang sisiran ng pakikihalo.”

(While I am grateful to Paula Carolina Malay for giving General Alvarez’s memoirs a much wider hearing through her English translation, I grew increasingly distressed as I read her version. In a word, I found her translation problematic. Instead of the “simple, straightforward English” she promises in her Translator’s Note, we often get unconsciously academic, intrusively explanatory, language: “sa anyaya ng Magdalo” becomes “on the initiative of the Magdalo faction,” instead of the simple, straightforward “on [the] Magdalo’s invitation.” “Napag-usapan ang pagsasanib ng Magdalo at Magdiwang nang maging isang Pamunuan na lamang” becomes “They explored the possibilities of a merger between the Magdalo and Magdiwang so that there would be a unified leadership.” That phrase about exploring possibilities seems generations, and a culture or two, removed from the friars’ hacienda in Imus, where the plot to save Rizal was hatched.

A rough-and-ready translation of the passage about the mooted rescue: “It was also discussed and planned to save Dr. Jose Rizal; take him from the Enemy that would execute him the following day … and General Apoy [Alvarez himself] pledged to send troops armed with knives to Manila throughout the night, who will be mixed with those watching the execution and respond to [a sudden signal].”)

The rescue didn’t happen, although as many of Rizal’s biographers note, talk was rife on the day of the execution that rebels from Cavite would make an attempt.

Alvarez explains why the plan wasn’t even attempted. Rizal’s older brother Paciano (whose name the general misspelled as Ponciano) arrived at the assembly. “And he said his brother Dr. Rizal would agree to be rescued, if only one life were to be risked [kung isa lamang buhay ang pupuhunanin], because that would be equal to his own in service; but if two lives were to be risked, then don’t even think it because he could not agree, since two lives needed by the nation [sa pangangailangan ng Bayan] could never be equal to one.”

* * *

After the Noli, and Rizal’s triumphant but tense visit back home, it became possible to think of Rizal, not as mere leader, but as the answer to the people’s problems.

On May 26, 1889, a friend from Calamba (perhaps the brother of Mateo Elejorde, one of the unfortunate exiles) wrote: “Ay! Jose ang mga tao rine ualang ibang itinatanong at inaasahan cunde icao, ang lalong cahirap hirapan ng mga taga bundoc nagtatanong sa aquin ng iyong pag ooi, tila umaasang icalauang Josue na mag liligtas ng caralitaan …”

The official English translation is, again, by the estimable if overworked Encarnacion Alzona, who quickened my pulse with this rendering of that last passage: “It seems that they consider you the second Jesus who will liberate from misery.” The summary head that graces each letter in the Rizal correspondence even elaborates on the theme. “Everybody is asking for him and regards him as the ‘Second Jesus Christ,’ their savior.”

Could this be the first document to refer to Rizal as a redeemer, a divinity? This would work if “Josue” were a common Tagalog alternative for “Hesus.” (They share the same root.) Earlier this month, I had a chance to ask the country’s foremost living historian. Was Rizal’s townsman in fact referring to him as a second Jesus? Fr. John Schumacher SJ replied to my question with another question: “Are you familiar with Joshua?”

It immediately made sense. Joshua, son of Nun, succeeded Moses, and brought the wandering tribes of Israel into the promised land.

We can thus translate Elejorde’s letter to read: “Ah, Jose. The people here ask about no one and hope in no one except you; even the poorest of the mountain folk ask me about your return. It seems they hope in you as the second Joshua who will save the poor …”

The error seems to be all Alzona’s. Teodoro M. Kalaw, the editor of “Epistolario Rizalino,” did not translate “Josue” as “Jesus,” and made no reference to the “second Jesus Christ” in the head notes. The literacy pioneer Frank Laubach also correctly translated the passage in his 1936 Rizal biography.

Perhaps it is time to save Rizal’s historic, nation-shaping correspondence with a completely new translation.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

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