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.