The Most Famous Book in the Philippines (and why it’s awesome)

Not many countries have a national hero who wrote good fiction.  

The Philippines got lucky – they have Jose Rizal. Rizal was only 26 years old when he wrote his magnum opus and sowed the seeds of a revolution. 130 years later, 3rd years in Filipino high schools are still reading it.

That book is none other than Noli Mi Tangere.

Imagine if George Washington or MLK wrote a novel describing the current situation in America and the need for justice with the imagination and irony of Charles Dickens.   Or if Gandhi did the same thing in India in the early 20th century. It would be a pretty big deal, right?

I read Noli expecting it would be an “educational” experience. It was that, but it was also entertaining, funny, tragic, operatic, and so many other things I was not expecting.

If there is one “definitive” novel you want to read in, on or about the Philippines, this is it.

Noli begins with a dinner party in the house of Captain Tiago, a wealthy Filipino who enjoys hosting and impressing others:

…at the time Captain Tiago was considered one of the most hospitable of men, and it was well known that his house, like his country, shut its doors against nothing except commerce and all new or bold ideas.

 The most hostile enemies to these “new ideas” are the friars, the de facto rulers of the towns – and the most hostile and tyrannical of these friars is Padre Damaso.   Padre Damaso is one of Captain Tiago’s guests and enjoys being a VIP and having the last word on everything. The tides turn when the captain introduces a special new guest: his future son-in-law, Chrisostomo Ibarra.

Ibarra is a kind and idealistic young man who has been studying in Europe and dreams of opening a schoolhouse. He also looks forward to marrying his lovely fiancée, Maria Clara and settling down to a happily ever after. The fates, of course, have other ideas.

Ibarra learns that there is something sinister behind his father’s death, and that Padre Damaso is a part of it. Padre Damaso happens to also be Maria Clara’s godfather and does not approve of Ibarra’s progressive views. The two are enemies from day one.

Ibarra tries to be a peacemaker and a compromiser, but the more he sees of the Filipinos’ inequality and the oppression under the dominion of the friars, the more conflicted he becomes. A mysterious new friend, Elias, tells Ibarra that bloodshed and revolution is the only realistic answer. Ibarra does everything he can to hold out and hope for a more peaceful path, but he finds himself at a center of controversy and persecution all the same.

If Ibarra is a tragic hero following the old Greek model, his crucial failing would be optimism. “Couldn’t a worthy enterprise make its way over everything, since truth doesn’t need to borrow garments from error?” he asks Tasio, the local sage, at one point.

To which Tasio replies, “Nobody loves the naked truth!”

Ouch. Reality bites.

Is Rizal saying that preemptive bloodshed and violence is the only solution? That would be ironic, because Rizal himself wrote this political novel as an alternative to bloodshed. What’s even more chilling is the fact that in the character of Ibarra Rizal prophesied his own fate. Just a few years after Noli was released, Rizal was accused of plotting and sedition and brought before the court.

The most triumphant aspect of Noli Mi Tangere is not the political dialogue but the variety of memorable characters and the vivid scenes that reveal 19th century Philippine life under the tyranny of the friars.

We visit a belfry where we see two altar boys accused by the sacristan of a crime they didn’t commit, a cock fight where two young brothers gamble their money to escape their poverty, and a bombastic sermon in church by the blustering Padre Damaso that defies his followers to stay awake. We meet victims like the tormented madwoman Sisa , dreamers like Tasio the Sage who writes in a secret code for future generations, and villains like Padre Salvi who lusts after women in spite of his sickly and pompous disposition.

Charles Dickens himself would be hard pressed to outdo characters like the terrible Doña Consolación with her whip and the comical Doña Victorina with her awful fashion statements – and their hapless husbands who get dragged into their hateful rivalry.

If Rizal was exaggerating the virtues, vices and contrasts of his characters, it could not have been by much, because his novel hit a note and sent the country reeling. Noli Mi Tangere means “Touch Me Not,” in Latin, and Rizal said that the contents of his novel were so sensitive and so controversial that no one up until that point in time was willing to “touch” them. The novel was the match that lit the powder keg and inspired the Filipino people to fight for their freedom. Nine years later, Rizal paid for the aftermath with his life in front of a firing squad.

Now that the Philippines is a free and much more prosperous country today, however – and thanks in part to Jose Rizal – there is no reason you shouldn’t touch Noli Mi Tangere.   It’s not every day you find a novel about justice, freedom, revenge, romance and secret identity that also shaped the history of a nation.

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What I (think I) learned this past year

Almost exactly one year ago I was sitting in my apartment in Seongnam, South Korea and realized I was going to turn 29 soon.  And then somehow I decided that it would be a great idea to start a blog and read 29 books within a year.

Getting older is a mixed bag, emotionally speaking.  On the one hand, dreams fade and doors close (or slam) as you realize you no longer have enough time left on earth to do all the cool things you had hoped.   With growing alarm you realize that even some of the basic things – like buying a house, setting up car insurance or investing in some sort of savvy retirement plan – you’ve yet to accomplish.  Not only are your dreams of being a prodigy dashed, you suddenly find that you are “average,” or even below average compared to your peers in 21st century Americana.

On the other hand, you gain confidence.  You’ve boughten plane tickets, opened bank accounts, had successful job interviews, moved multiple cardboard boxes of stuff multiple times to multiple homes and set up shop and somehow made it work.  And where else does such confidence come from but sheer experience?   Perhaps confidence is a misleading word because it suggests some sort of proactive, can-do attitude that conjures up an image of an attractive person in a pantsuit making lots of important phone calls.  To me, that’s not confidence.  Sure, some people are natural networkers and go-getters (not me), but I’ve experienced that confidence is simply this: the inevitable result of willingly doing boring, demanding “grown up” stuff on your own over a period of time.  Not only do you survive and not screw up or blow your credit to hell – you do just fine.

So yes, as I get older I realize there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve done alright, and that makes me feel good.  There’s still other stuff I haven’t done, but that’s okay.  Not everyone can be Mark Zuckerberg.

2016 was a good year for me as far as, “doing stuff alright.”  The biggest highlights include the travel I did (mostly with Yun) and actually finishing my goal to read 29 books.   Predictably, some of the books were better or more enjoyable than others.  The predictable question I suppose, is, “what did you learn from it all?”  Or better yet, “did you learn anything at all?”

The short answer: Yes.  The long answer requires putting words crafted in an original enough way that I hope can stick with you, instead of evaporating like a trite meme on Facebook.  But how to do that?  And how to condense the foggy but powerful impressions I experienced?  Is there anything profound or true that I gained, or was it a lot of emotions and aesthetics?

Here is the best way I can sum up what I (think I) learned in 2016:

1. Anywhere can be boring.

The most interesting thing I realized while traveling this past year was that anywhere you go, you are on someone’s mundane and familiar home turf.  “Exotic” and “exciting” are completely relative terms.   Diving with sea turtles may be the experience of a lifetime for you, but for your dive guide, it’s her bread and butter.  Mind-blowing jungle landscapes in Malaysia had me slack-jawed, while the holiday makers from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore were mainly interested in strawberry markets.  Strawberries, for crying out loud. Because to them, the European imports are that much more interesting than rafflesia flowers and pitcher plants.  Things that are familiar become boring.  In the worst case, you may not even care about preserving or understanding them (a problem for the jungles in Malaysia, anyway, according to our guide Joe).

But there’s something very good here.  If anywhere can be boring, simply invert that and you discover that anywhere can also be really exciting.

It’s all perspective.  Now, of course Yun and I paid with our hard-earned savings to travel to these different places because we wanted to experience something “different,” and we did just that.  But the more time we spent talking to guides and other locals, the more we realized that the beauty and excitement in something has to do with how you associate it.  Do you see elephants as a commodity, or do you see them as otherworldly creatures that bring you joy and and inspiration?  A lot of that would have to do with how and where you grew up.  A Thai elephant trainer and a middle class American woman are going to see that one very differently.

The cool thing, though, is that perspectives can change based on enough experiences (or just a touch of wisdom and sense).  After living in South Korea for almost five years I returned to my hometown in Arizona and found it absolutely surreal.  As I sat in my dad’s truck listening to him tell stories about the Lost Dutchman and ore mines in the mountains it almost seemed like I was on another tour of a new and faraway land.  Except this time it was my birthplace.

My dad knows a thing or two about this subject.  He used to work at a hotel, sometimes arranging tours for guests who came from as far away as Japan and Germany.

“Early in a morning a jeep would pick them up and drive them far out north, out towards the mountains like we’re heading now.  They would see a rattlesnake in the wild and have a chance to fire powdered bullets out of a pistol.  Later they’d build a big fire and have a steak dinner and the guide would pull out a guitar and start playing cowboy songs.  And they loved it.  One lady came to us in tears the next day and said it was the best experience of her life.”

A few years ago I would have just laughed at that.  I wouldn’t have believed it.  But I get it now.  And the Phoenix valley no longer looks boring to me.  It’s exhilarating and sublime, in fact.  I even have an interest now in the history of the miners and the Native tribes and the Mexican settlers.  And the ironic part is that it’s thanks to spending enough time on the other side of the Pacific ocean, in places where rain forests, Buddhist temples and tuk-tuks were “normal” and “boring.”

2.  I can’t believe that I only read British and American novels for so many years

How to explain.  How to not sound hoity-toity.  The truth is, it really was eye-opening this year to read so many books written in other countries.  I still read a lot of British and American novels, mainly because my options were limited due to geographical reasons, but the international books I was able to read (mainly Asian) added so much color and fun to my traditional diet of “classics.”  Of course, traveling to a lot of those countries solidified it – but I don’t think travel is necessary to enjoy a book.

Until last year, I didn’t even realize the Philippines had a national literary hero who almost single-handedly inspired a revolution.  I read his novel (Noli Mi Tangere), and it was fascinating.  Until last year I’d never read a Korean novel, so I found a few of those and gave them a try.  I even ventured into the kind of books that would normally appear on post-colonial reading requirements for a college course (Things Fall Apart, anyone?), but I actually enjoyed them – probably because I didn’t read them as a requirement, but instead out of my own curiosity.

The bottom line is, it’s fun to learn about different places where different cultural values and customs are the norm.  Frankly, it helps you understand your own norms.  Learning about the rigidity of Korean family roles I realized the things I take for granted in my life – such as not even addressing my aunt and uncle by their titles.  Reading a post-colonial Indonesian novel (This Earth of Mankind) in which the author himself admits that in spite of the cruelty of the Dutch, the Europeans overall treat their women better than the locals suddenly presents interesting ethical food for thought.  And sometimes, the most surprising things of all are when you discover that characters, for example in 1920’s Japan, are all too relatable to people you meet today.

In hindsight, it’s like I was seeing through a small crack – whereas now that crack has broadened into a small hole.  The more countries and cultures I learned about, the more familiar, less strange and intimidating, and more interesting they became.  I can’t say whether the similarities or differences between such cultures and ours are more important, because both are crucial to get the full picture.

3. Dream big, but plan small – for now

It’s kind of a miracle I actually managed to read 29 books in a year.  Not that it’s hard to do so.  I actually have a dear friend who managed to finish about triple that in the same space of time.   I’m just lousy at keeping goals.

But the difference this time was that I kept it modest, and I kept it specific.  If I had strived for anything over 30, I would have choked in the dust.  My curse is that I am interested in too many things at a time, and tend to browse superficially through them – or focus too hard and then burn out soon afterwards.   Even worse, I am something of a perfectionist and dislike doing something if I feel I can’t do it just right.  That often comes into play when writing blog entries.  It almost drives me nuts that I can’t replicate the quality in my own stuff that I recognize so readily in other people’s.  But a lot of that boils down to pride, the most major pitfall of all.

I obviously didn’t go viral this year and get rich this year, nor did I even write nearly as much content as I’d hoped.  But I did keep going, kept reading, kept writing, and I’m still here.  And I don’t intend to go away.

This year is going to look very different from last, now that Yun and I live in Arizona rather than South Korea.  There are no big international trips on the horizon, and may not be for a while.  But if I am to practice what I preach, then any place can be exciting and interesting, with the right perspective.  And not being able to physically travel far away gives me all the more reason to travel and discover new stuff and ideas in the form of books.  Happy 2017 and happy reading, everyone!

The Completed List of 29 Books for the year of 2016:

1. Please Take Care of Mom, Shin Sook Kyung

2. Middlemarch, George Eliot

3. Love’s Executioner, Irving Yalom

4. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

5. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

6. Naomi, Junichiro Tanizaki

7. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

8. 198: How I Ran Out of Countries, Gunnar Garfors

9. The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim

10. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

11. The Vegetarian, Han Kang

12. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns

13. The Lost Executioner, Nic Dunlop

14. First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung

15. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster

16. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

17. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

18. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

19. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

20. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

21. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

22. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

23. Noli Mi Tangere, Jose Rizal

24. The Beach, Alex Garland

25. Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap

26. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Pirsig

27. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, Shamini Flint

28. The Princess Bride, William Goldman

29. This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer