Thursday, March 8, 2012

Noli Me Tangere--Review

It was difficult for me to approach "Noli Me Tangere" for several reasons. For one, the iconic status the book holds in the Philippines and the martyrdom of its author made me doubt that I could waft aside the clouds of heroic greatness to assess the book on its own terms; I had a similar problem with "This Earth of Mankind." Secondly, I downloaded the book in both Spanish (kindle version) and my moon+reader for the Project Gutenberg translation in English by Charles Derbyshire, and the plethora of footnotes (often useful but badly formatted) and jumbled electronic printing errors often had me trying to puzzle out the physical meaning of the text than concentrating on what the author was trying to say. And thirdly, the novel starts out at a dinner party--my absolute least favorite opening-scene ploy, as I hate trying stumbling around--particularly in a foreign language--trying to figure out who is crucial to the story and who's just stuck in there for a little conversational scenery. Even Tolstoy in "War and Peace" had problems with this gambit. I persevered, however, as the novel is canonical in Filipino literature, and I don't intend to abandon any books (though I came close with "When the Elephants Dance") during my year-long voyage unless they prove to be completely unreadable.

"Noli Me Tangere" tells the story of Crisomtomo Ibarra, who innocently returns to his homeland after years of studying in Europe, and his love for the beautiful Maria Clara. He's unaware that during his absence his father has clashed with several leaders of the Catholic church, and that his sudden death has been a disgraceful one. Ibarra must navigate between the anti-clerical, anti-Spanish factions that have risen up--one of which sees him as a natural leader--and at the same time win the hand of Maria Clara, his childhood friend. He must find his way in his boyhood land, which seems, at times, to be both strangely unchanged--and frighteningly different.

It's a novel from the Victorian era, and shares many of the conventions of the time. Most of the priests are cassock-twirling figures of villainy. Maria Clara shares many of the same annoying traits of her sister in Java, the neurotic Ann of "This Earth of Mankind", though at least Rizal (unlike Toer) was at least writing during the 19th century, so it is not surprising that she falls into the  convenient-illness-that-only-the-hero-can-cure that also bedeviled Toer's heroine. (She does show some backbone at the end, however, in a way that only a Catholic heroine can demonstrate). And there's lots of straight-out-of-Dickens melodrama, mixed in with some rather lengthy political  discussions. Indeed, often the book reads like second rate Elizabeth Gaskell.

The book is still well worth reading, however, for its evocation of 19th century Manila, still blessed with lush greenery and hidden lakes and overgrown cemeteries. Since I have lived in Andalucia, I especially enjoyed reading about the Spanish customs that infiltrated the Philippines, particularly the processions and the "Moros and Christianos mock combats. There's a wicked portrait, too, of the elderly wife of a minor governmental official and her attempts at Spanish culture (though she can barely speak Castilian and has lost most of her Tagalog). Indeed, it was this depiction of this lady and her husband and another older couple that were my favorite parts of the novel. The author's sarcastic asides about these wanna-be Spaniards were both sad and funny, and were for me the best part of the book.

Rizal's trenchant observations about Tagalog customs, amusing though they might be, are not, I think, why this book is so famous. His hero's struggles to reform, and not overthrow the Spanish system of government foreshadow his own problems when he, too, returned to the Philippines shortly after publishing his book. It's uncanny how much the plot follows Rizal's own fate years later, although he was safe in Germany when he was writing his novel. It is one of those books that's simply impossible to separate the fictional from the real.

I read about three quarters of this book in English, as the formatting errors made it difficult to concentrate. Rizal's writing was written in straightforward Spanish was some elegant turns of phrases; Derbyshire's translation was excellent though slightly more colloquial than the original. Derbyshire derives his title from a comment Rizal makes towards the end of the novel, when he describes the Catholic church as a cancer. I still don't care much for his choice, though I don't like Rizal's title either, and there's a Latin-laden chapter (also towards the end of the book) which is wearisomely pretentious and represents all that  is not so good about the novel. The book's amazingly prescience, however, makes up for any weak-kneed heroines, stereotypical bad-guys, and intellectual pretensions.

        Three 1/2 stars. (OK, maybe Four stars for canonical status and eerie foreshadowing)


Odd indeed that Ibarra and the  resistance hero of "When the Elephants Dance " have the very same refuge as their goal.

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