Rereading El Fili

After rereading the Noli a couple of months ago, I waited a while before starting on its sequel El Filibusterismo (book #80 of 2009), because I wanted to gather up the courage to read it again. Like everyone else who’s read both novels, I’ve always found El Fili more challenging than the Noli, and I wanted sufficient time to focus on the novel so I could better understand it. I ended up taking it along on a couple of trips out of town this summer.
The review is also a challenge to write — it’s not easy to comment about a book that has been read and reread by generations of Filipinos, written by a man revered as national hero for more than a century now.        

Again, to my non-Filipino readers, a bit of an explanation: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo are two novels written by the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal. Originally written in Spanish, and a catalyst for the change in political thinking in the 19th and 20th century Philippines, both novels are required reading for high school students in the country. It’s a bit difficult to summarize — you can read about it on Wikipedia.

As with the Noli, I read the Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin edition of El Fili (English title: Subversion) highly recommended by Flipper friend Czar (who now has his own blog!) for its rich language that tries to preserve the form and context of Rizal’s original Spanish. Now that Czar has named the two books as the common reading requirement in the FFP Diversity Challenge, I’m glad I read the books before half the year set in, but I will have to regroup my challenge entries.  

Identity change
Though as prodigiously written as the Noli, El Fili stands in contrast to the Noli as it goes deeper into the ideas that the first book touched upon, and gets darker and darker until the fiery end.    Crisostomo Ibarra, the protagonist from the Noli, returns in El Fili and sheds his preppy, pretty-boy image in favor of a new identity: the mysterious jeweler Simoun.
“The jeweler was a lean, tall, sinewy man , deeply tanned, dressed in the English fashion, and wearing a helmet of tinsin. What called attention to him was his long hair — completely white in contrast to the black beard, which was sparse, denoting mestizo origin. To avoid the light of the sun, he always wore a pair of enormous, blue tinted glasses which completely covered his eyes and part of his cheeks, giving him the aspectof a blind man or one of defective eyesight. He stood with legs apart, as if to maintain his balance, hands thrust into the pockets of his jacket.”

In El Fili Ibarra (as Simoun) returns to avenge all that he lost, driven to the brink of madness by all that he has experienced. The disguise is so conspicuous I’m surprised nobody figured him out for a fake sooner. But they figured Simoun was an American, he had strong ties with the Capitan-General and the assets to prove he was a jeweler. Nobody had reason to associate him with Ibarra, whom people thought to be dead, so he got away with it.   

I find Ibarra’s lot in life heartbreaking. A gently bred and educated son of a wealthy family and engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Ibarra had his whole life to look forward to when he returned from his studies abroad to his hometown. But alas, he inherits his father’s enemies, and he is forced into a fate he did not want.

But it is not only Ibarra who has been transformed; time has not been kind to the other characters from the Noli, either: Basilio, the young boy hunted by the guardia civil, now a young man pursuing medicine; Maria Clara, beautiful and full of life, now wasting away at the Sta. Clara convent; Kapitan Tiago, dignified and jolly, now in a permanent opium-induced stupor. Such a tragedy!

The fire of revolution
It is difficult to discuss El Fili without touching on the revolution that Simoun incited in the novel. Simoun uses his ties with the Capitan-General and the upper class to influence them to abuse their position, to commit deeds that will stir the anger of the masses. While Ibarra would have sought diplomatic means to challenge the authorities, Simoun goes all out to set off a bloodbath, a violent revolution meant to eradicate a corrupted society.

Simoun gains the support of various aggrieved parties: Cabesang Tales, decrying the injustice his family suffered at the hands of the friars; the university students, who are proposing to establish a Spanish language academy but are meeting opposition from the Dominicans; Quiroga, a Chinese merchant aspiring for an important position in society; and eventually, Basilio, initially reluctant but pushed over the edge by the death of his sweetheart Juli.   

At the biggest society event of their time — the wedding of Paulita Gomez and Juanito Pelaez, Simoun plots to wipe out the prime movers of society by planting a lamp filled with nitroglycerine in the living room, set to explode when the wick is turned up.

Simoun’s plan is foiled by Paulita’s ex-boyfriend Isagani, and he meets his death at the remote seaside home of Padre Florentino, but I imagine that to the very end, he believes it was not all in in vain, as he once told Basilio:

“Patriotism can only be a crime in the oppressor nations, because then it will be rapacity baptized with a beautiful name, but no matter how perfect humanity may become, patriotism will always be a virtue among the oppressed peoples because it will signify for all time love of justice, freedom and self-dignity… The greatness of man lies not in being ahead of his times… but in divining his wants, responding to his needs and guiding himself to march forward.”

One of the passages in the final chapter though, a piece by Padre Florentino, seems to cement Rizal’s personal stand on waiting for the right time for revolution:

“In the meantime, while the Filipino people may not have sufficient energy to proclaim, with head high and chest bared, their rights to social life, and to guarantee it with their sacrifice, with their own blood; while we see our own countrymen in private life feeling shame within themselves, to hear roaring the voice of conscience which rebels and protests, in public life keep silent, to make a chorus with him who abuses to mock the abused; while we see them enclosed in their own selfishness, praising the most iniquitous deeds with forced smiles, begging with their eyes for a portion of the booty, why give them freedom? With Spain and without doubt, because he who loves tyranny submits to it. Señor Simoun, while our people may not be prepared, while they may go to battle beguiled or forced, without a clear understanding of what they have to do, the wisest attmpts will fail and it is better that they fail, because why commit the wife to the husband if he does not sufficiently love her, if he is not ready to die for her?”

Words that come to life
Politics isn’t really something I enjoy reading, but as the novel isn’t entirely political, I found a lot of other parts to like.

I really like Rizal’s lavishly descriptive prose, as it takes you right to the heart of the scene, as if you were witnessing it before your very eyes.

For instance, this is how Rizal describes the steamship Tabo:

“Bathed by the morning sun, which makes the ripples of the river throb and the wind sing through the swaying reeds flourishing on both banks, there goes her white silhouette, waving a black plume of smoke; they say the Ship of State smokes much, too! Her whistle wails at every moment, raucous and imposing like a tyrant that seeks to rule by shouting; so much so that no one aboard understands himself. She threatens everything in her way, now seeming about to crush the salambaw, scraggy fishing contraptions which in their movements are not unlike skeletons saluting an antediluvian turtle; now running straight against the bamboo brushes or gainst the floating eating places or karihan, which, among gumamelas and already in water but still undecided on plunging in. Sometimes, following a certain bearing marked on the river with bamboo poles, the steamship moves very surely, but suddenly a shock jolts the travelers, making them lose their balance; she has struck low-lying mud which nobody suspected.”

I actually took this book along an interisland trip that involved around eight ferry rides across the country, and so this particular passage was very vivid to me. All the while I could imagine traveling down the Pasig river in the steamship Tabo, surrounded by the hustle-bustle of the ship crew and passengers.

And then there’s Simoun’s casket of jewelry:

“Simoun opened the casket and lifted the raw cotton which protected it, uncovering a compartment full of rings, lockets, crucifixes, pins, and so forth. Diamonds combined with stones of different color sparkled, stirred among golden flowers of different hues with veins of enamel, with fanciful designs and rare arabesques. 

Simoun lifted the tray and displayed another full of fantastic jewels which could have overwhelmed the imagination of seven young women on the eve of seven balls in their honor. such fantastic designs, combination of precious stones and pearls, imitating insects with bluish backs and transparent wings; the sapphire, the emerald, the ruby, the turquoise, the diamond were arranged together, to create dragonflies, butterflies, wasps, bees, scarabs, serpents, lizards, fish, flowers, clusters, and others…

Nobody had ever seen such wealth before. In that box lined with dark blue velvet, divided dinto sections, could be realized the dreams of a Thousand and One Nights, the dreams of Oriental fantasies. Diamonds as large as chickpeas were scintillating, spewing sparks of fascinating hues as if they were melting or burning perfectly in the colors of the spectrum; emeralds from Peru in all shapes and cuts; rubies from India, red like drops of blood; sapphires from Ceylon, blue and white; turquoises from Persia; Oriental mother-of-pearl; some rosy, gray and black. Those who have seen in the night a giant rocket exploding against the dark blue sky into thousands of sparks of all colors, so brilliant that the eternal stars pale beside them, can imagine the aura that compartment radiated.

This is actually one of my favorite passages in this book, even back when I first read it in high school. What a spread that must have been, and I’m not surprised all the ladies nearly swooned when Simoun brought out his wares. The casket ends up at the bottom of the sea at the end of the book, and it resurfaces in another novel written decades later, in Ang Mga Ibong Mandaragit by Amado V. Hernandez.

And sadder still
The part that affected me most in the book is that defining scene when Basilio reveals to Simoun that Maria Clara has passed away. More than revenge, Simoun is actually inciting a revolution so he can storm the gates of the cloister and rescue Maria Clara, so they can pick up where they left off and get a chance to live the life they were deprived of.

But alas, after thirteen years in the cloister, Maria Clara was taken ill and subsequently died after a few days.    Simoun is devastated by the news, and I couldn’t help crying at this part:   

“Dead!” he murmured in a voice so low it was as if a ghost were speaking, “dead! dead without having seen her, dead without knowing that I was living for hear, dead suffering…” 

And feeling that a horrible storm, a tempest of whirlwinds and thunder without a drop of rain, sobs without tears, cries without words, roaored in his breast and was going to overflow like incandescent lava long ago suppressed, he hurridly fled the room. Basilio heard him rush down the stairs with erratic steps, tumbling; he heard a silent cry, a cry that seemed to herald the coming of death, deep, unbridled, mournful…

And Basilio thinks of the fate of Ibarra and Maria Clara:

“He, young, rich, lettered, free, master of his destiny, with a brilliant future ahead of him, and she, beautiful like a dream, pure, full of faith and innocence, cradled among loves and smiles, destined for a happy life, to be adored int eh family and respected in the world, and yet, nevertheless, those two beings, full of love, of dreams and hopes; by a fatal destiny, he wandered around the world, dragged without respite by a whirlpool of blood and tears, sowing bad instead of doing good, dismantling virtue and fomenting vice, while she was dying in the mysterious shadows of the cloister where she had sought peace and may perhaps have encountered sufferings, where she had entered pure and without stain and expired like a crushed flower!”

That’s just the saddest thing ever. It makes me want to create an alternate universe for Ibarra and Maria Clara, where they can live happily ever after, but I think the power of the Noli and the El Fili, is in establishing how the forces at work in their society have affected their lives, just as historically, countless lives of Filipinos were changed by our experience as a colony.

And on an ending note…
It’s a strange feeling, to read the books that have been read by millions of Filipinos over the last century, the books that have had the power to set the wheels of Philippine history in motion. While I can’t say I carry the same fervor the first readers of the books must have had, I am gratified that the books are still alive today to serve as a link to them.

I still like Noli Me Tangere over El Filibusterismo, but I’m glad I took on the challenge of reading both books and writing a bit about them. I meant to read them for leisure, but the books have moved me more than I expected they would, and I appreciate them better now than I did back in high school.

I really love the Lacson-Locsin translations, and my next target is to upgrade my paperbacks into the nice hardcovers, hopefully at the next Manila International Book Fair.

My copy: El Filibusterismo, Lacson-Locsin translation, paperback.

My rating: 4/5 stars (out of personal preference on the themes of the novel, not on literary merit, which is obviously stellar)


Rereading the Noli

I’ve never read Noli Me Tangere (book #55 for 2009, book #10 for the Diversity Challenge : Filipino novel) outside of our class requirements in high school and in college, and so it was at the top of my list for this year; I really wanted to read it for leisure.

Upon the recommendation of my Flipper/BMP friend Czar, I chose the English translation by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin (published by Bookmark) that I got for P100 at the Manila International Book Fair. English because I read faster in English than in Filipino, and this particular translation because I heard it was the most accurate. There is also a Penguin edition, although it’s translated by a Caucasian, so I’m not sure how it pans out, but it should be worth trying out as well.

Re-reading the Noli: perfect with a cup of “Tsokolate Eh”
Lacson-Locsin explains in her introduction:

“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. If the Filipino cannot truly grasp his own past he may not value his present nor ascertain his future.”

It took me about a week to finish the novel; I had a lot on my plate for the past week and I fear for my reading ratio for the next three months because I’m working on a big illustration project and I can’t exactly read and draw at the same time (unfortunately), but I am determined to get through it, even if I have to read one chapter as a reward for each finished segment of the project.

Anyway, back to the Noli.

Since not all my readers are Filipino, I need to explain. The Noli Me Tangere is one of the two novels written by our national hero, Jose Rizal. A reading requirement for high schools in the Philippines, the novel was originally written in Spanish, and was a great influence on political thinking in the 19th and 20th century. It’s a bit difficult to summarize — you can read about it on Wikipedia.

I like the Noli’s coversational tone, especially in setting the scene for the novel. It starts out with the party at Capitan Tiago’s house, and the narrator, much like a tour guide, quips: “since no porters or servants ask for the invitation cards, let us go up.”

The narrator then goes on to describe the house in detail, from the interiors to the adornments of paintings and the religious statues, the magnificent spread, and even the crowd of partygoers. I love the witty descriptions and succinct observations about society:

“At the center is a long table… which seems to wink temptingly at the freeloaders with sweet promises; and to threaten the timid youth or the unsophisticated lass with two mortal hours in the company of stranger whose language and conversation tend to have a jargon all their own.” “Generally speaking, we mortals are like tortoises: we are valued for our shells.”

Idyll in an Azotea

After all these years, I still have my favorite chapter — Idyll in an Azotea.

Chapter 7, which is forever engrained in my memory as “Pag-uulayaw sa Azotea” (that sounds more romantic!), is, to this day, one of the most romantic pieces I have ever read in print, either in English or Filipino. I remember that day we read it in class, and the classroom resounded with a chorus of schoolgirl sighs, each of us imagining ourselves as Maria Clara in this jesting banter of young lovers, superimposing an image of the crush for the moment against the image of Crisostomo Ibarra. Reading it again, nearly a decade later, I am no less moved.

The chapter captures young love so accurately, from Maria Clara’s heartpounding anticipation of Ibarra’s arrival:

“Each sound from the street, each carriage that passes by causes the maiden’s bosom to throb, and makes her tremble. Ah! Now she wishes she were back in her quiet and peaceful convent among her friends. There she would be able to see him without trembling, without feeling disturbed. But, was he not your childhood friend; did you not play many games together, and even quarrel sometimes? If you who read this have loved, you will understand; if not, it is useless for me to tell you; the profane cannot comprehend these mysteries.”

The pretense of focusing elsewhere other than the object of affection upon the moment of encounter:

“Capitan Tiago and Ibarra were talking animatedly when Tia Isabel appeared, practically dragging forward her niece who was looking everywhere in the room except those at present. What were those two souls saying who were communicating in the language of the eyes, more perfectly than with the lips, a language given by the soul so that sound does not disturb the ecstasy of feeling? In those moments, when the thoughts of two happy beings are blended into one through the eyes, the word is gross, slow and weak; it is like the rude and dull sound of thunder, before the blinding flash and speed of lightning; it expresses an already known feeling, an idea already understood; and if we make use of it, it is because of the heart’s ambition, which dominates all of one’s being, and which overflows with happiness, wishing that all of the human organism with all its faculties, physical and psychic, would manifest the symphony of happiness intoned by the spirit. To a query of love by a glance, brilliant or veiled, the word has no answer: only the smile, the kiss, or the sigh.”

And the fervent reassurance and renewal of undying love:

Ibarra: Can I forget you? Would I be faithless to a vow, a sacred vow?… I took hold of your hand and that of my dead mother, I swore to love you, to make you happy no matter what fate Heaven had in store for me; and this oath I have
never regretted. Now I am renewing it. Can I forgmaet you? Your memory has always kept me company; it has saved me from dangers along the way; it has been my comfort in the solitude of my soul in foreign countries; your memory has negated the effect of the European lotus of forgetfulness, which effaces from the remembrance of many of our countrymen the hopes and the sorrows of the Motherland.

Maria Clara: I have not travelled as you have, nor do I know of a town other than your own, Manila and Antipolo. But since I bade you farewell and entered the convent I have always recalled and not forgotten you, even if my confessor commanded me to do so, imposing many penances…

And then they reveal their precious mementos of each other, Ibarra a bunch of withered aromatic sage leaves that she gathered for him, kept inside his wallet, and Maria Clara, his farewell letter, encased in a satin pouch kept on her bosom (!).


On Sisa

Sisa , a young woman who is a victim of her situation, a long-suffering wife and a loving mother, is one of the saddest characters I have ever encountered.

Even in the chapter in which she is introduced, before she becomes demented, you can already see how she has been reduced to a shell of a person:

“Sisa covered the scanty coals with ashes so as not to extinguish them completely, the same way a man covers up the feelings of his soul– covers them with the ashes of life which are called indifference, so that they are not extinguished by the quotidian treatment of our fellowmen.”

And with the trauma she experiences as the novel unfolds, you really wouldn’t be surprised that she loses her marbles.

On revolution

I promised myself this was going to be a leisurely reading, but it’s hard to separate the novel from its political underpinnings, given the context in which it was written.

I do not have the authority or qualifications to launch into a discourse of the political statements presented by Noli Me Tangere, so I’ll just take a few quotes that struck me, and you can draw your own conclusions:

P.226, Elias: “Woe unto them who are engaged in deception and work in darkness, believing that all are asleep! When the light of day illuminates the monster of the shadows, the terrible reaction will come: so much strength bottled up over centuries; so much venom distilled drop by drop; so much lament suppressed will come out and explode…”

p.231, Pilosopo Tasyo: “If that should happen, if the enterprise fails, what will console you is the thought of having done your part. And even thus, something would be gained: lay the first stone, sow; after the storm is unleashed, some grain of wheat will perhaps germinate, survive the catastrophe, save from destruction the species which would later serve as seed for the sons of the dead sower.”

p. 298, Elias: “In life, it is not the criminals who arouse the hatred of others, but men who are honest.”

p.434, Elias: “Criminals, or future criminals — but why are they such? Because their peace has been broken, their happiness wrenched from them; they have been wounded in their most cherished affections. When they asked justice for protection, they became convinced that they can expect it only from themselves. But you are mistaken, Sir, if you think criminals only ask for it. Go from town to town, from house to house, listen to the silent sighs of families; you will be convinced that the evils the Civil Guard correct are the same, if not less than the evils they continually cause…”

Drawing to the close

I finally finished the book yesterday morning, and found it so sad I cried through the last five chapters, from “Wedding Plans for Maria Clara” right down to the epilogue — crying for the love of Maria Clara and Crisostomo, crying for Sisa’s death in her son’s arms and Basilio’s loss of innocence, and crying for the turmoil yet to come in the 2nd novel, El Filibusterismo, which I have also lined up for this year.

The Noli was even better than I remembered it, especially reading it as a work of fiction and outside of academic requirement. Hopefully this blog entry gets more people to read (or re-read) this Filipino classic.

My copy: paperback copy from Bookmark, crying out to be upgraded (hay, someday…)

My rating: 5/5 stars