Published on April 5, 2011.
IT IS 75 days to Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary, and I thought I’d mark the date by reading FHM magazine—the February 2011 issue of the Philippine edition, to be exact, with Misa Campo on the cover and a great tease of a sub-headline: “Jose Rizal was pro-Spain—and 12 other historical facts you must know.”
The quote is from cultural impresario Carlos Celdran—or at least I think so, because I never did get to buy a copy of the magazine. I went to seven bookstores or book stalls, and they were all out of back issues. I read the article in a bookstore, however, when the issue first came out (truly, there is no limit to research, or to its many distractions). I thank the FHM editors for their provocative presentation of Philippine “historical facts” but (granted that I am relying mainly on what I remember of the article) I must disagree with them, and with Celdran.
Rizal was emphatically not pro-Spain. This is the same fundamental error that Rizal’s first biographer, Wenceslao Retana, shared with that biography’s epilogue-writer, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. In the twilight of the Spanish empire, they saw this splendid specimen of humanity and claimed him for Mother Spain.
On what did Celdran base his conclusion: On “Noli Me Tangere.”
Celdran reads the “Noli” as essentially reformist, merely anti-friar and ultimately pro-Spanish. There is no need to quarrel with this interpretation, because, as we all know, Rizal wrote a second novel, the much more incendiary “El Filibusterismo.” He also wrote several broadsides in “La Solidaridad,” several of which ended with dire prognostications about the future of Spanish rule in the Philippine colony. Above all, Rizal wrote hundreds of letters; in many of them, from the breathless descriptions of Europe?s great capitals, which he wrote for his family; to the exhortatory epistles to fellow Filipinos in Europe; to the letters he exchanged with his two greatest correspondents, Ferdinand Blumentritt and Marcelo del Pilar, Rizal’s disdain for almost everything Spanish was a constant theme: the way children were brought up (in contrast with the French and the Germans), the way Christmas was celebrated (in contrast with the English), the way personal honor was upheld (in contrast with the Italians), the way education was passed to the next generation (in contrast with almost everywhere else on the continent).
Raised in a colony where Spain was held as the ideal, the standard, Rizal found Barcelona dreary, Madrid disappointing, Spain itself mediocre. Having visited Singapore three times and lived in Hong Kong for several months, he found himself impressed with the way the English ruled their colonies. He thought it enlightened, in contrast with the Spanish approach, which was dismal—and bound to end in bloodshed.
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In 2006, Penguin Books issued Harold Augenbraum’s new English translation of “Noli.” I see from the Amazon online bookstore that Augenbraum’s translation of “Fili,” which we mentioned some time in 2009, is slated for general release on May 31, in time for Rizal’s 150th birthday. I still haven’t confirmed this for myself, but the Amazon advice is welcome news. Rizal’s two novels and some of his poems belong to world literature. The Penguin editions make the novels—scandalously subversive for their time, still a crackling good read today—available to more readers around the world.
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On a more modest scale (but perhaps a somewhat immodest note), my own book, “Revolutionary Spirit: Jose Rizal in Southeast Asia,” will be published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in June, in Singapore.
I was commissioned to write about Rizal’s influence in Southeast Asia, and seven of the 10 chapters (and one of the three appendices) discuss the somewhat elusive but nevertheless real nature of that influence: on the nascent Indonesian independence movement led by the pioneering “Indo” nationalist E. F. E. Douwes Dekker; on the politicized labor sector of American-era Manila in which the communist Tan Malaka found a home; on the restless pemuda (youth) in Japanese-occupied Jakarta; on East Java rebels caught in the first flush of independence; on the soaring, mass-moving rhetoric of the charismatic Sukarno; on the exciting work of what I have learned to call the Alatas tradition, a lineage of liberal Malaysian intellectuals inspired by Syed Hussein Alatas; not least, on the uses of Philippine history in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s great Buru Quartet.
I found, though, that to make sense of Rizal, I first needed to recover a more accurate sense of what he was. The first three chapters thus describe Rizal as his contemporaries saw him: as a man of projects, the enemy of Spain, a true revolutionary.
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Rizal is not the monopoly of the academe, and I hope to drive home the point in future columns. But I must note that several major academic conferences are being organized to mark the Rizal sesquicentenary. I am glad to have been invited to take part in two of them. The University of the Philippines hosts a three-day forum from June 22 to 24, at the GT-Toyota Auditorium on the Diliman campus, on “Rizal in the 21st Century: Local and Global Perspectives.” The University of Sto. Tomas, the Ateneo de Manila University and Letran Calamba, representing three stages of Rizal’s education in the Philippines, co-host a three-day forum of their own from July 7 to 9, in various venues, in cooperation with the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. One thing we can be certain of: Rizal was definitely pro-education.