Friday, February 18, 2011

Dr. Jose Rizal's Noli me tangere & El Filibusterismo: Hidden in plain sight

I received this Filipinas Magazine article reprint from Gemma Nemenzo.  Written in 2006, it is very appropriate to the Filipino Book Festival blog.

Dr. Jose Rizal's Noli me tangere was published in Berlin, 1887.  It's sequel, El filibusterismo was published in Ghent, 1891.

SLANT June 2006

"Hidden In Plain Sight 

by Gemma Nemenzo. 

When I was in high school at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, I was for the most part pasang-awa (borderline passing grade) in Pilipino (at that time it was still spelled with a P). Not that I was doing better in Chemistry or Algebra, but that’s another story. Pilipino to me was the ultimate bore. Who could get excited about grammar and conjugations and quizzes that tested one’s vernacular vocabulary? Certainly not me and, as I found out from our reunions, neither did a lot of my classmates. We have discovered that we shared a dislike for Pilipino as a subject, despite having a teacher who was sweet and gentle but whose instructional approach was so old-fashioned and uninspiring.

In my junior year, however, I started getting high marks in Pilipino because we read and studied Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo all year, and the teacher who handled the subject, Miss Jorda, approached it as literature, not grammar. Thus we discussed plots and motives, history and politics, the cruelty of the colonial masters and the heroism of the downtrodden, all in Pilipino. For the first and last time, I was actually enjoying the course. To this day, I fondly remember my year with Miss Jorda as one of the very, very few times I actually looked forward to attending a class.

In college, a course on the Noli and Fili (tagged PI 100 in UP) was a requirement for graduation. Though we were reading the two novels in English, making them easier to breeze through, the imposition dampened whatever interest I had in revisiting these two historical books seriously. Like most other required texts in my other courses, I only did a cursory reading, just enough to get a passing grade. (Yet, I was and still am a voracious reader of books of my choosing.)

Some years back I met an Australian professor of international political movements who told me about how he had managed to pique the interest of his young students, most of whom were just there for the academic credits. Instead of forcing them to read boring history books, he gave them a list of novels from various countries that told of the events and issues written about in the textbooks but in less intimidating, more interesting narratives. For teaching about the Philippines, he used the Noli and the Fili, of which the professor spoke so highly as examples of world-class literature. That piqued my interest and my shame (for taking them for granted) so I promised myself I would reread our national hero’s obra maestra, his literary masterpieces, the first chance I get.

When I got hold of the latest (1996) translation of the Noli and Fili by Maria Soledad Lacson-Locsin, handsomely printed and bound by Bookmark, I knew the time had come. An added motivation was the translator’s story: Mrs. Locsin, was 85 years old when she began her translation using the facsimile editions of Rizal’s original manuscripts. Three years later, her work done, she passed away shortly before these translations were published.

Mrs. Locsin chose a different approach from previous translators. In her introduction to the Noli, she explained: “Somehow I had the uneasy feeling that there [the other translations] was a greater pursuit to depict the political and social thoughts of Rizal’s time in the context of the translator’s milieu rather than simply to tell the story of a different world in a different time. Although translations have to be in tandem with the semantics of the age in which they are read to be appreciated, my own personal view is that they should, as much as possible, capture much of the nuances and cadence of the period in which they had been written; even at the risk of sounding awkward or stilted…It is also my view that the heart and mind need to understand and touch the past close to its pristine form, to sense the pulse of national heritage.”

Mrs. Locsin also restored a previously unpublished chapter of the Noli, titled “Elias and Salome,” which Rizal, in the novel’s first edition in 1887, chose to omit.

I read the Noli with new eyes and I wasn’t disappointed. It is, in fact, one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime. Beyond the political theme and the historical value – already formidable assets  – the novel is beautifully written and structured. It has drama, comedy and tragedy, romance, passion, mystery, scandal, pathos, anger – all the ingredients of a present-day bestseller. If Mrs. Locsin was as faithful to the original as she claimed – and I have no reason to doubt her – Jose Rizal was one heck of a writer, one who not only had an excellent grasp of the technical aspect of crafting a novel, but who also had a lot of imagination and heart.

Read Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in the new translations.  Not only will you be treated to a graphic description of life under Spanish rule, you will also gain a deeper insight on the evolution of the Filipino psyche. Best of all, you will have in your hands the two books that inspired a revolution which changed the course of our country’s history."

Write Gemma Nemenzo at