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Noli Me Tangere
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B+ : sprawling and a bit oddly paced, but a strong piece of work
See our review for fuller assessment.
[* refers to an earlier translation]
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Noli Me Tangere begins with the return of Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra to his homeland, the Philippines, after almost seven years in Europe.
His father, Rafael, was a wealthy and powerful man, but Ibarra had long had no news from him, and only learns his father's fate on his return: he had been involved in an altercation that had led to the death of a tax collector, and Rafael's enemies had taken advantage of the situation to pile on him: "because of his wealth, his confidence in justice, and his hatred of anything that was not legal or just, they ruined him"; he had died in prison almost a year earlier.
Adding insult to injury, the local head priest, Father Dámaso, had had the body dug up, ordering it to be transferred to the Chinese cemetery (though they never got that far with it, dumping it in a lake instead).
I love my country, the Philippines, because I owe it my life and my happiness, and everyone should love his country. I love Spain, the country of my forefathers, because, in spite of everything, the Philippines owes it her happiness and her future, and will owe them to her. I am Catholic, I maintain the pure faith of my parents and I don't see why I need to bow my head when I want to lift it up, to deliver it to my enemies when I can bring them down.Ibarra had left his childhood sweetheart, María Clara, behind when he left for Europe, but, reünited, they promise nothing has changed. As Ibarra tells his fiancée:
To me you seemed like a fairy, a spirit, the poetic embodiment of my homeland, beautiful, simple, loving, frank, a child of the Philippines, that beautiful country that brings together the great virtues of Mother Spain and the fine qualities of a youthful people, as you, in all your being, bring together the finest and most beautiful facets of our two races; so your love and the one I profess for my country have melted into one ...If María Clara remains his ideal, the reality of the Philippines he is confronted with soon can't help but to be disillusioning. As Old Tasio -- known as Tasio the Philosopher (and Tasio the Madman ...), the story's old wise man, known for his: "odd ideas and his strange manner of dealing with people" -- notes; "The Philippines is in a fog !" It's not just moral clarity that is lacking; foundations and function are increasingly mired in ugly murk.
In particular, the powerful (Catholic) Church is and its officials seem to act only out of self-interest, clinging to their power, at whatever cost. They do worry -- "We will lose everything, as we did in Europe ! And what's worse is that we are the instruments of our own destruction" -- and immediately have concerns about the return of the son of Rafael Ibarra. There is some hope that he'll simply come into the fold: his union with the daughter of the important local, Captain Tiago, looks promising: "With a wife and father-in-law like them we will have him body and soul. And if not, he declares himself an enemy". But, from the first, not all from the local order are fully on board, notably Father Salví -- who also creepily lurks and leers around María Clara, obviously lusting after her .....
Most of the novel is set in and around San Diego. Ibarra wants to help the locals, carrying on his father's work, and his first great project is to build a proper school. Local education is, for now, in the hands of the Church and, as Ibarra learns from the local schoolmaster, an abomination, with the schoolmaster's sensible attempts at reform -- such as not relying on beatings -- undermined by the local priests. (Violence against others, particularly those in a subservient position, is nearly ubiquitous here -- to the extent that even rewards are structured around it: at one point the local ensign wants a man captured and encourages his soldiers to find him by promising that whoever: "grabs him will get no whippings for three months".)
Ibarra is warned that he has to stay on the good side of those with power if he wants his plans to succeed:
All your efforts will crash up against the parish walls if you so much as undo a friar's belt or wrinkle his cassock. The magistrate, on the smallest pretense, will deny tomorrow what he has conceded today. Not one woman will allow her child to attend the school, and then all your work will be counterproductive. It will disillusion everyone who wanted to try a noble undertaking.Ibarra is intelligent and quite capable, getting things done. But he does have blind spots, unable to see just how corrupt much of this society he is now back in is. So also, even well into the story, he is surprised when he is warned:
"For your own safety you need your enemies to think you are unprepared and trusting."It is well into the story that Ibarra meets Elías, a fugitive with strong opinions about what needs to be done. Elías is in debt, of sorts, to Ibarra after that first dramatic encounter, but also sees in Ibarra someone who might side with the people in what he understands is already a much larger conflict. Despite the mounting evidence of how much is wrong, Ibarra still finds it difficult to conceive of taking on the system head-on, even as Elías encourages him:
"It's true. By ourselves we're nothing. But take up the people's cause, unite the people, don't ignore their voices, be an example to the rest, give then the concept of what one calls a nation !"Despite Ibarra's caution and unwillingness to embrace the cause, Elías is devoted to him and acts as a sort of shadowy protector. It is Elías who warns him about a plot against him at the benediction ceremony at the cornerstone-laying for the school building -- "don't get too far from the priest, don't go down into the trench, and don't go near the cornerstone, and you'll go on living" -- and then about the much larger and more consequential conspiracy: "that will be attributed to you in order to get rid of you". Ibarra can't bring himself to flee as suddenly as Elías advises, and so he does get caught up in the plot to take him down; afterwards, when the dust settles, it is also Elías then who manages to spring him from his prison -- a scene that Rizal, surprisingly, doesn't narrate in all its drama but rather just mentions incidentally.
Only in being set up and sacrificed by the powers that be does Ibarra finally come to realize the truth of the situation, the plight of the Philippines and its people:
Now misfortune has ripped off my blinders. Solitude and the misery of prison have shown me. Now I see the horrible cancer gnawing at this society, rotting its flesh, almost begging for a violent extirpation. They opened my eyes, they made me see the sores and forced me to become a criminal !He means to take action now, even as Elías encourages him to flee to safety and a comfortable life abroad (while acknowledging that he can't bring himself to abandon his country). Elías does what he can to get Ibarra to safety in the dramatic conclusion of this storyline -- but Rizal leaves open-ended what will become of Ibarra. (The novel's sequel, El Filibusterismo, picks up and continues the story, years later.)
While Ibarra and his slow realization of the true conditions of the Philippines make for the heart of the story, Noli Me Tangere also extends considerably beyond that. Ibarra and María Clara's love makes for an accompanying romantic storyline, the natural and obvious union thwarted by circumstances and those that are opposed to it (notably lecherous Father Salví). At one point, Ibarra is provoked by Father Dámaso and lashes out at him, leading to his being excommunicated -- and forcing Captain Tiago to break his daughter's engagement, the devout man warned by Father Dámaso that if he didn't: "he will condemn me in this life and the next". While the excommunication is reversed -- Ibarra still does have some powerful friends and connections, even in the Church -- the union looks to be ill-starred, and another suitable husband is found for María Clara. And ultimately any possible union with Ibarra is derailed when María Clara is essentially blackmailed by the man who is her real father -- as it turns out she is not actually Captain Tiago's daughter. María Clara is just one more thing that Ibarra loses in the final reckoning; like the family home burning down, it is tragic but also clears the way for his final turn to true rebel, as he has nothing left that might hold him back.
There are other storylines in the novel, too, notably that of the poor woman Sisa, "wife of a heartless man who tries to live for her sons while her husband has gone off and gambles on cockfights". She lives an hour from town, and her young sons, Basilio and Crispín, work in the church in San Diego, barely eking out much of a living with their pay constantly being docked and suffering general abuse from their superiors. Accused of theft, the family suffers greatly and their lives spiral out of control, the desperate mother losing her mind; the final chapter of the novel is set on Christmas Eve, Basilio reünited, in the most tragic way, with his mother. (This is essentially the closing scene of the novel, but Rizal does include an Epilogue, quickly running through what becomes of some of the other characters as well.)
There are also chapters in which a variety of other characters come to the fore, from the downright comic, such as the pompous Doña Victorina and the husband she dominates (and whom she forces to pretend is a medical doctor), or the cruel military wife, Doña Consolación. Some of these character portraits can, in part, feel like padding to the main stories, but they are quite well done, Rizal clearly enjoying himself in spinning out these smaller side-stories. Other figures, such as Old Tasio, are more closely tied into the main storyline -- but, yes, Noli Me Tangere is a very crowded and at times overly-busy-seeming novel.
It takes a remarkably long time for Ibarra to accept that the rot is so deep that radical change is called for -- and that the institutions that hold sway over the country are not capable of seeing to the necessary change. When he returns from Europe, he understands: "The country these days is an organism that suffers from a chronic illness" -- but he looks to the government to take the lead in trying to remedy that. And despite his experiences with the Church leaders in San Diego, he long remains convinced:
To preserve the Philippines it is absolutely necessary to go on with the friars, and in our union with Spain lies the well-being of our country.Old Tasio suggests that change is increasingly in the air, making the case that:
Nowadays, we in the Philippines walk three centuries behind the cart, we have barely emerged from the Middle Ages, which is why the Jesuits, who are so reactionary in Europe, seen from here represent progress. [...] Yes, now we are entering a period of struggle, I say, you are: our generation belongs to the night, we are exiting. The fight is between the past, which has grasped and grappled with curses the tottering castle of feudalism, and the future, whose triumphal march is heard from afar in the splendors of a nascent rainbow, bringing good news to other countries ...Ibarra returns to the Philippines having seen, first-hand, a more advanced Europe, and among the lessons that he learnt is: "that a people's prosperity or misery lay in direct proportion to its freedoms or its inhibitions" -- but he long remains blind to just how limited the freedoms are for the population he returns to. He believes some simple, obvious steps can help advance the Philippines -- education, above all, as witnessed by his dedication to building a school -- and over the course of the novel he only very slowly comes to realize that the entrenched powers that be -- especially the Church -- are a much greater hindrance to progress and the well-being of the people than he imagined.
Noli Me Tangere is somewhat oddly paced -- not least in how slowly it dawns on Ibarra how much is wrong, and then his sudden, final transformation. Rizal offers excellent scenes of town life and politics -- not least the power of the Church over local life and decisions ("one has to obey the head priest", the locals understand) --, or scenes of action, such as the boat ride when Ibarra comes to know Elías or the laying of the school-cornerstone. Much of the story is full-blown melodrama, including the affecting story of Sisa and her sons -- arguably rather excessive, but given how much Rizal packs into his novel it mostly works alright in the overall flow. The romance with María Clara can feel a bit underdeveloped, but that's in part also because she is used so very much as a pawn in the story, her fate tossed this way and that by Rizal as events unfold -- but with elements such as Father Salví's very creepy obsession with her neatly woven into the story.
As translator Harold Augenbraum points out in his Introduction: "Few people in the book communicate -- or pray -- effectively, and Rizal's portrait of linguistic and religious infirmity languishes on both banks of colonialism's broad gulf", as language plays a significant role throughout the book, with locals and the colonists having at best limited command over each other's languages; there are numerous strong scenes of what amount to confrontation, in which one or another language is forced onto another, any possibility of actual communication taking a back seat. (This extends to a comic scene, late on, in which Latin phrases and expressions are tossed back and forth.) This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel, and nicely worked into it by Rizal.
Noli Me Tangere is a bit of a messy social and political novel -- though Rizal fortunately manages to avoid the didacticism that can really bog this kind of novel down. Attention often slips away from the main storyline, as Rizal tries to build an expansive novel in the grand European tradition; it's not a bad thing, and makes for many of the novel's most engaging scenes, but even as it helps make some of his broader point regarding the degradation of this society and abuse of power it doesn't all feel tied together closely enough. Ibarra also too long remains blind to too much around him, with the eye-opening itself then very quickly presented in the novel's closing chapters, with Rizal oddly not focusing closely on, for example, Ibarra's experiences in jail. The sudden transformation -- "misfortune has ripped off my blinders" -- is fine as a final, dramatic blow, but it's striking how little before then was convincing to Ibarra -- and how suddenly convincing this experience is.
Noli Me Tangere is an ambitious novel that feels torn in a few different directions -- holding together, but just, in all its sprawl. Rizal's enthusiasm is infectious, and he shows considerable talent both with humor and tragedy. If (many) parts tend towards the overly melodramatic, the constant change of pace and focus easily keep the novel from sinking too deep in that (though there are times when it is a danger ...).
Uneven though it is, Noli Me Tangere is a strong piece of work and a fascinating consideration of late nineteenth century Philippine life and circumstances.
- M.A.Orthofer, 11 March 2021
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José Rizal was born in 1861 and executed in 1896. The author of Noli me tangere, he remains a leading figure in the history of the Philippines.
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