Rizal Day Reading 2021 | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Rizal Day Reading 2021

/ 04:05 AM December 29, 2021

Nick Joaquín’s “Rizal in Saga: A life for Student Fans” has been on my reference shelf for a quarter of a century. It was skimmed once when it was new, the appendices scanned as required readings for my undergrad Rizal course. Re-reading it during the pandemic to write an introduction for a 2021 edition made me realize that the text remains relevant and readable long since Nick finished it on the Solemnity of the Ascension 1996 and should rightfully see print again.


Nick churned out commissioned biographies for a living, majority of them sadly obscure, of limited circulation compared to the compilations of his journalism, verse, and fiction from which assignments spring for Philippine literature class. This Rizal biography was practically out of print as soon as the hardcover, book paper, first edition copies were delivered to the National Centennial Commission (NCC) and GMA Network to be given away as souvenir of the 1996 centennial of Rizal’s martyrdom. If not for this new edition, it would have remained mostly unread and unappreciated.

Slipped inside my copy of the book was an engraved card that reads: “With the compliments of Salvador H. Laurel.” This was Laurel’s personal rather than his official card as NCC chairman. Finding it reminded me of a lost opportunity. It was a mistake for the NCC to commission a new Rizal biography from Nick Joaquín, something he could do with his eyes closed. Our National Artist for Literature should have been challenged to translate Rizal’s novels. He was, perhaps, the only living Filipino writer at the time qualified for the task. Having translated the complete poems and plays of Rizal, he demonstrated an intimate knowledge of Rizal’s life and work. His was a shameless display of mastery in both Philippine Spanish and Philippine English. Only he could make Rizal’s prose sing for a generation cut off from its past and its National Hero because of language. Remember, Rizal left 25 volumes of writing for a nation that does not read him, and if Rizal is read at all, it is often in questionable or incompetent translation. By commissioning a new Rizal biography instead of the definitive translation of Rizal’s novels we lost a bridge to cross over the chasm.


There are many textbook biographies of Rizal that were written to bore the reader. Nick Joaquín made something of an anti-climactic story. Everyone knows what will happen in the end—he will be shot dead on Dec. 30, 1896. What can a Rizal biographer bring to the table that hasn’t been learned from textbook history? Nick’s superb writing and his unique turns of phrase may be difficult for a generation that needs to relearn their p’s and q’s. Nick does not deploy words that make you reach for a dictionary as much as the late Blas Ople who would drop words like “interregnum” and “Göttermäderung” at the drop of a hat. Nick Joaquín peppers the narrative with his brand of p’s and q’s like punctilious, penultimate, and piquant. Mary Poppins taught me to say and spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Nick’s Rizal biography added “quintocentisteria” and “empiembombo” to my arsenal of conversation stoppers.

“Rizal in Saga” is composed of 35 chapters and four appendices, the former for the young reader, the latter for further, more serious reading. Chapters and Appendices complement each other such that Chapter 28 on the “Great Filipino Novel” provides the historical context for the Rizal Law that requires all college students in the Philippines to read the “Noli” and “Fili”; while Appendix 1 advises students to read for Rizal for literary rather than patriotic purpose. The 35 chapters remind us that Rizal’s short life spanned 35 years, and that we, too, can do great things before we turn 50. Nick chose to focus 23 of the 35 chapters on Rizal’s youth that ends with the first of his three trips to Europe in 1881. Rizal’s youth, for Nick Joaquín, is the base from which Rizal matures into man and hero.

I will not spoil your fun because the book contains many surprises, like Rizal feeling inadequate because he was “small” in the wrong places. Seeing Rizal through Nick Joaquín’s eyes is an adventure and a delight. My modest contributions to Rizal Day Reading 2021 are two books: Nick Joaquín’s “Rizal in Saga” (Milflores) with my introduction and annotations and, of course, a peek into the hero’s love life in “Queridas de Rizal: Looking Back 16” (Anvil).

Comments are welcome at [email protected]
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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, nick joaquin, Philippine history, Rizal Day, Rizal in Saga
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