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Rizal the ‘little bad boy’

/ 12:28 AM September 09, 2016

EEKLO, BELGIUM—I am here in this small town known for Unesco-declared heritage structures. It is off the beaten track of tourist destinations like Brussels or Bruges, but I was brought here from the airport to stay with Lucien Spittael, a retired Nato officer and now a Knight of the Order of Rizal.

Spittael’s charming home, outside the town center, does not look any different from the neighbors’ except that his driveway has a tarpaulin showing the chronology of Rizal’s life and works. Inside the home he shares with his Filipino wife Madeline Acosta Abordo is a veritable Rizal museum with pictures, busts, memorabilia, etc. Rizal started as a hobby for him and has grown into an obsession, such that I am sure he knows more about our national hero than the average Filipino.

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This weekend I will deliver a lecture at the Ghent Town Hall to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the publication of “El Filibusterismo” (1891), on the invitation of Philippine Ambassador to Belgium Victoria Bataclan and the sponsorship of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. I will be joined by former Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan, who is commuting from The Hague for the event.

Spittael and I have been corresponding by email for some time now, and finally having the opportunity to meet him and go beyond pleasantries taught me a great deal about the details of Rizal and his stay in Belgium, which should lead to some revision of what we know. For example, all historians studying Rizal have long accepted that he had a girlfriend in Belgium named Suzanne Jacoby. She does not look very attractive in an extant photograph; some people have even commented unkindly that she could have passed for a man!

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There were about a dozen letters of “Suzanne Jacoby” in the prewar National Library, according to a footnote in Rafael Palma’s prewar “Biografia de Rizal,” but only three have survived in compilations of Rizal’s correspondence. I have always wondered why T. M. Kalaw did not include these letters in the “Epistolario Rizalino.” You will understand why when you read the letter to Rizal from “Petite Suzanne” (Little Susan), posted from Brussels on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 1890:

“My dear Mr. Rizal:

“You may not have received yet my letter and I am writing you this one because the young gentleman from Madrid came to our house. He arrived at Brussels at one o’clock and came to the house at night. As it was a little late (10:00 o’clock), we had gone upstairs to bed. Aunt Suzanne and I were both in bed. Aunt Marie was still up. When he first rang, we thought it was a street urchin, but at the second time Aunt Marie went to open the door and let him in. Then she woke up Monsieur Fernand for whom I believe Monsieur Baudrio has brought a letter. All three were in the kitchen and I could hear very well all that he said. When we heard him speak, we thought it was you and then the name of Monsieur Rizal puzzled us.

“I had a hard time holding back Aunt Suzanne. She maintained that you had returned, that it was you who were in the kitchen, but we did not see you. Monsieur Fernand gave him much information and placed himself at his disposal for other things. All I know about him is that he is taller than you and combs his hair in a different way. But I will see him better, for Aunt Marie has invited him to come again. Then I will ask to talk again about you. He must learn French at once. Aunt Marie asked him if you have become stout, what you were doing, and if you liked Madrid very much.

“Monsieur Baudrio replied that you have become stout … and I believe he also said that you were counting on coming back, which made me so happy that I could not sleep.

“Here is already one of your compatriots. Come quickly and bring with you some twenty more and you can hold picnics, too, here in Brussels.

“I hope your courts are open and I shall not have to wait a long time for your decision.

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“Don’t delay too long writing us because I wear out the soles of my shoes for running to the mailbox to see if there is a letter from you.

“Waiting impatiently for your letter in which you will tell me all that I want to know, the whole family sends you regards with wishes for your return.

“Your Petite Suzanne

“P.S. There will never be any home in which you are so loved as in that in Brussels, so, you little bad boy, hurry up and come back. Tell us a little about the kind of house in which you are lodged and how the people are there.”

Such an innocent letter on the surface, but on rereading you may ask: why is Rizal called a “little bad boy”? What does she mean by Rizal leaving his courts open? All the Rizal biographers have identified this Belgian woman as Suzanne Jacoby, but Spittael has consulted the municipal archives and found that there were two Suzannes in the house where Rizal stayed: Suzanne Jacoby, aged 46 at the time, and her niece Suzanne Thill, aged 18. Of the three letters in Rizal’s collected correspondence, two are signed “Petite Suzanne” and one “Suzanne T.”

Spittael pointed out the obvious. These letters are not from “Aunt” Suzanne but from her niece Suzanne Thill! Obviously, Rizal chose youth over age, and now the quest for Suzanne T. continues.

Present Rizal research continues abroad, undertaken by adoptive Filipinos like Lucien Spittael, Karl-Heinz Wionzek, and many others who put Pinoy researchers like me to shame.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Belgium, Brussels, Jose Rizal, Karl-Heinz Wionzek, Lucien Spittael, Madeline Acosta Abordo, Suzanne Jacoby, Suzanne Thill
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