Looking Back

To know Rizal, read Rizal

If I could bring anyone back from history for dinner, my first choice would be a toss-up between Leonardo da Vinci or Apolinario Mabini. Perhaps the Luna brothers Juan and Antonio would come next, because there is a lot I want to know of and about them.

Rizal is at the bottom of my guest list, because he left too much material to digest in a lifetime: letters, diaries, essays, two novels and the drafts of many more. From other primary sources, we have family letters, electricity receipts, recollections of contemporaries, his students from Dapitan, and even his Chinese cook when he was living in Hong Kong. It’s classic Rizal overload, so dinner with him would simply be a validation of whether I have read him right or wrong the past three decades.


Rizal might be disappointed that I have not attempted a new biography of him. But there is little I can add to the collective material in these standard, reliable, books: Wenceslao E. Retana’s “Vida y Escritos del Dr. Rizal” (1907);  Austin Craig’s “Life, Lineage and Labors of Jose Rizal” (1913); Leon Ma. Guerrero’s prize-winning “First Filipino” (1961); Austin Coates’ “Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr” (1968); and Nick Joaquin’s “Rizal in Saga” (1996).

Nothing else in the market today can compare with the content, style or insight of these five authors, whose books always remain within reach on my work table. Gregorio Zaide’s popular textbook I keep for some curious bits not found elsewhere. For example, the real reason for Josephine Bracken’s miscarriage in Dapitan was that he played a prank on her that turned bad.


Why add another biography to the pile when Rizal himself left an autobiography hidden in a mass of documentation? It’s a pity that Rizal wrote a lot for a nation that does not read him. His life is studied in school and learned from teachers and textbooks rather than from his own words, which are compiled in 25 volumes.

Worse, our generation is separated from his because of time and language. Students today only have access to Rizal in translation. A new edition of his complete writings requires tedious documentary editing: transcribing the texts anew from handwritten originals; and checking to see if former transcriptions are accurate or complete before embarking on fresh translations from the original Spanish, German, French and Italian of Rizal into 21st-century English and Filipino. Then all texts have to be annotated and indexed to provide cross-referencing, and perhaps even a concordance.

When you visit the reconstructed Rizal House in Calamba, Laguna, you must read his own recollections of his childhood home to see what is missing from the garden:

“There the delicious ates displayed its delicate fruit and lowered its branches to save me the effort of reaching for them; the sweet santol, the scented and honeyed tampoy, the pink macupa competed as my favorites. Farther away, the plum tree, the harsh but flavored casuy, the beautiful tamarind, equally pleasing to the eye and delightful to the palate. Here the papaya spread its broad leaves, attracting birds with its enormous fruit. There the nangca, the coffee, and the orange trees, that perfumed the air with the aroma of their flowers. On this side were the iba, the balimbing, the pomegranate with its thick foliage and lovely flowers that enchanted the senses. Here and there were found elegant and majestic palm trees loaded with large nuts, swaying their proud crowns and beautiful fronds, the mistresses of the forests.  Ah! It would be endless if I were to enumerate all our trees and entertain myself in naming them!”

“At the close of the day, numerous birds came from everywhere, and I, still a child of three years at the most, entertained myself by looking at them with unbelievable joy.  The yellow culilan, the maya of different varieties, the culae, the maria-capra, the martin, all the species of pipit, joined in pleasant harmony and intoned in varied chorus a hymn of farewell to the sun as it disappeared behind the tall mountains of my town… as such beautiful days passed away also, leaving behind them only the slightest remembrances. Ay! Even now when I look out the window of our house to the beautiful panorama at twilight, my past impressions come back to my mind with painful eagerness!”

In order to know Rizal, one has to read Rizal.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: Jose Rizal, national hero, Philippine history
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