The pleasures of Rizal’s novels
Writing more than half a century ago, National Artist Nick Joaquin prophesied: “When these books (the ‘Noli’ and ‘Fili’) have been knocked down from the altar, they may find their way back to the shelf and some curious ignorant boy may pick them up and start reading them … And that boy is going to have one hell of a good time.”
Looking back, I felt alluded to as the curious and ignorant boy, except that I was no longer a boy when I discovered Jose Rizal’s novels.
Coming from a public high school, and a provincial one at that, I did not read the “Noli” and “Fili” until I enrolled in graduate school. I realized later that this was rather a boon than a bane. Unlike many high school students forced to read Rizal in a badly translated edition and (mis)guided by teachers influenced by some outdated theory, I first read Rizal’s twin novels in the beautiful English translation of Soledad Lacson-Locsin with no intent but to enjoy a literary work. And the novelist did not disappoint me.
From the first paragraphs of the “Noli,” as the reader is led by an omniscient narrator into the house of Don Santiago, to later chapters like “The Sermon,” I could barely keep myself from smiling and sometimes chuckling while alone with my book. For who would not smile reading this line? “Like an electric jolt the news circulated around the world of social parasites: the pests or dregs which God in His infinite goodness created and very fondly breeds in Manila.” These days Manilenos might point to the San Miguel district near the Pasig River as the breeding ground.
Much of the laughter that one gets from reading the novels is evoked by the narrator, who serves as the reader’s tour guide. Indeed, Manila’s tourists cannot find a better guide. Rizal’s narrator brings the reader to the busy streets of Binondo, directs one to cross a bridge, and then to behold old Manila, “surrounded still by its walls and moats, like an anemic young woman in a dress from her grandmother’s best times.”
Another classic, albeit bitingly satirical, description comes from “In the Church” in the “Noli”: “The structure known to man as the dwelling of the Creator of all that exists was full of people from end to end… From afar an arm would stretch out to dip a finger in holy water… Some old men who were able to moisten their fingers in the now mud-colored water, where the whole populace … would dip their fingers, were daubing themselves piously with consecrated water … with the conviction that sanctifying all those parts so they would not feel pain in the neck, nor headaches, nor tuberculosis nor indigestion. The young people who perhaps were not so sickly … hardly dipped their fingertips … thinking: ‘It may be holy water and whatever you may wish, but its color!”
The modernity of this narrator is obvious. Like a doctor, he points not to the efficacy of the “mud-colored” water but to its dirt. The reader will recognize the novel’s implicit scientific viewpoint as the narrator exposes the disjunction between the sanctified and the sanitary. This modern vision is very much pervasive in the narrative of both novels, a vision that carries a new or bold idea not welcome in Don Santiago’s house.
The narrator’s presence is crucial to one’s appreciation of the novels. The reader peeps at the social world through the eyes of this narrator and it is through the latter that one overhears the rumors and the murmurs, the desires and the dreams of the characters that inhabit a polyglot world where Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese pidgin, Latin, French and Italian play like a symphony. Without this narrator, the pleasure of reading Rizal would be radically reduced, if not totally extinguished.
This is the reason a stage adaptation of the novels would be a totally different experience. In drama, one hears directly from the characters and the plot moves with their action and dialogue. Thus, there can be no role for Rizal’s narrator in a play. The reader’s comic companion totally disappears from the narration-less dramatic action. Lost are the detailed descriptions, the ironic comments, and the subversive denunciations of the narrative, and the viewer is left alone to contemplate the actors on stage.
The same is true in a film adaptation. It would be redundant to include a narrator’s commentary as the camera pans through cinematic images. The viewer will find the movie irritating and insulting to one’s intelligence if one keeps on hearing an explanation of what one sees on screen. Film art dictates that the viewer must be allowed to interpret the visual images presented; a movie, therefore, should refrain from hammering meanings into the viewer’s head using wordy explications.
Despite these technicalities, I would be glad if, instead of bombarding us with imitations of Korean soap operas and other melodramatic daydreams, our giant TV networks were to produce TV versions of the “Noli” and “Fili,” the way the Chinese transformed “Dream of the Red Chamber,” “Three Kingdoms” and other literary classics into television series.
Yet nothing beats the experience of reading the “Noli” and “Fili.” Nothing compares with the pleasures of roaming old Manila accompanied by an ironic, talkative and subversive tour guide, through whom we—the readers—get to appreciate the author’s novelistic humor, and thereby witness the return of irreverent laughter that had long been banished by our official worship of Rizal.
Jose Duke S. Bagulaya is assistant professor of comparative literature at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He works as a lawyer in his spare time.
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