The ‘Noli’ and me
When I was in high school, I was one of the pigheaded students. I was never a proficient student in Filipino owing to difficulties with the language I experienced and still experience to this day. I had already barely made it studying “Florante at Laura,” and was less than eager to study an even lengthier work in Filipino. Why we had to study “Noli me tangere” in Filipino was beyond me, considering that the original text was Spanish. I was biased against the book before I’d even read a single page of it.
We know from psychology that prejudices have a nasty habit of confirming themselves. It’s not something admirable, but it’s just a natural part of being human. At first, my prejudices toward the novel did confirm themselves. By the time I finished the first chapter, I already judged the characters to be incredibly boring, and the book thus incredibly uninteresting.
For instance, I did not have the most charitable reading of Crisostomo Ibarra in high school. On my first reading of the book, I thought Ibarra was a character that was so idealized it was laughable, a character too goody-two-shoes to be real. I thought he was a blatant attempt by Rizal to insert a surrogate for himself into his own jeremiad of a novel.
I judged Rizal’s effort in writing Ibarra to be shoddy, and thus, worthy of derision. When you had a character that represented yourself in the books, how much more ham-fisted could your social commentary be? That Rizal was executed for writing such a ham-fisted book did not concern me. If anything, it made things worse since he went through all that trouble for nothing.
But even disregarding the characters at play, my number one problem with the books was how seemingly irrelevant their social commentary was to our present political situation. What care did I have for colonial-era politics that had no relevance to contemporary Philippines? The novels were, as far as I was concerned, completely irrelevant to my present-day situation.
Or so I thought at the time.
It was only many years later when I was obligated to watch the play “Noli at Fili Dekada Dos Mil” at the Peta Theater, that the story truly came to life. An adaptation of the novel to the Philippines of the 2000s, the play satirized contemporary politics the same way the original novels satirized the politics of their day—although this time, none of the playwrights were executed for it.
Putting the generally amazing performances and impressive practical effects aside, the cuts necessitated by the change in the story’s medium greatly improved the narrative. Instead of drowning the readers in irrelevant descriptions of landscapes and miscellaneous events, the play went straight to the beating heart of the narrative—the “social cancer” that plagued our society. And the characters, expertly brought to life by skilled actors, felt more like real people than the political cartoons I saw in the novel.
I saw a Crisostomo Ibarra much closer to Rizal’s description of an “egoist” than as a mouthpiece for Rizal’s own views. Here reimagined as a similarly idealistic and liberal young mayor from a political dynasty, the play’s version of Ibarra, though still the most sympathetic character in the novel, was much more flawed, self-centered, and easily manipulated than his book counterpart. And that, combined with a stellar performance from the actor, made all the difference.
But most striking to me was how by updating the narrative, playwright Nicanor Tiongson showed how little had fundamentally changed in our society from Rizal’s time. Accusations of subversion from government forces, police brutality, exploitation of farmers, corruption in our religious institutions … all these elements and more were common to both the Philippines of Rizal’s time and the Philippines of today. In the intervening years between Rizal’s publication of the novel and the present day, little has changed, and all these things remain relevant today.
The stories we tell ourselves are crucially important in our development as a culture, something which both Rizal himself and the people who authored the Rizal law understood keenly. I now understand that the reason we have the Rizal law, Republic Act No. 1425 mandating the study of Rizal’s life and works including “Noli me tangere,” is to prove that we Filipinos are just as capable of creating complex, three-dimensional narratives that are critical of our present situation as anyone else. And really, what endeavor could be more noble than sharing the stories of one’s own culture?
Alfonso Divinagracia, 24, is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manila.
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