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‘Ang pangit na sisiu ng pato’

In class this week I showed my students a pre-war newsreel on Manila, which I downloaded from the Internet. First, I wanted the students to know that there are a lot more interesting things to be found on the Net aside from porn and friends on Facebook. Second, the newsreel, while shot during the American occupation, recorded scenes from Intramuros before it was destroyed by the American shelling at the end of the Battle for Manila in 1945, to exterminate the Japanese hiding in the walled city. In the process many innocent unarmed civilians were killed by desperate rampaging Japanese soldiers and by American shells that did not discriminate between friend or foe. Collateral damage is the term used to describe the unfortunate end of people caught in the crossfire, people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I show images of Intramuros as part of history class not just to help students imagine a walled city that is no more, but to make them understand the nostalgia in Nick Joaquin’s writings on the Manila of his affections, a Spanish Manila that was contained in those medieval walls, the Manila given a coat of arms by Philip II with the words,  “insigne y muy leal,” the distinguished and ever loyal city of Manila that we unfortunately talk about these days only in the past tense because much of what made Manila a premiere city in Asia is history.

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Lives and loved ones were not the only casualties of the Battle for Manila in 1945, architectural landmarks were destroyed and, with them, books, manuscripts, artifacts that are the lifeblood of history and historians. The National Library was destroyed and it is fortunate that someone had the foresight to store the treasures, like Rizal’s manuscripts and other significant historical books and papers, in Manila City Hall. After the war the vaults were discovered to have been forcibly opened with torches, and many of the contents were missing. But due to a call on people’s sense of patriotism then, almost all of the looted Rizal manuscripts were returned to the National Library where they have been conserved, sometimes a bit too overzealously, impeding legitimate research. Fortunately, under the new library director Antonio Santos, restrictive preservation policies from of old are being revisited to provide access to researchers.

One of the items never found is the original manuscript of Rizal’s translations of five tales by Hans Christian Andersen. Rizal translated the stories into Tagalog from German, and embellished them with charming drawings to delight and educate his nephews and nieces. Completed in Leipzig on Oct. 14, 1886 he dedicated the work: “Sa aking mga  pamangkin dahil sa uala laging isip kundi ang ikagagaling ninio kayong  mga mismong bunga ng mga kinakapatid ai pinag inutan kong isalin sa matamis nating wika ang mga kalugod-lugod ng salita ni Andersen.” It was a work by an uncle who desired nothing but their well-being. I recognized one tale immediately: “Ang pangit sa Sisiu ng Pato” was none other but “The Ugly Duckling.” Then there is “Si Gahinlalaki” (“Thumbelina”) dedicated to his nieces; “Ang Batang Babaing Mai Dalang Sakafuego” (The Little Match Girl) dedicated to his mother; “Ang Sugu” (“The Angel”) about death and children; and finally “Ang Puno ng Pino” (“Little Fir Tree”) dedicated to all his nephews and nieces to celebrate Christmas. What we have left is a photostatic copy of the original that makes the loss really hard to bear for here we see a different Rizal. Not a hero fossilized in bronze and stone, but a doting uncle who was human after all.

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Reading Rizal’s translations of the tales made me wonder why he chose them for his nephews and nieces. It is significant that three of the five tales have sad or depressing endings (“The Fir Tree,” “The Angel,”  “The Little Match Girl”), that all the tales concern a “small” person like himself. It is significant that “The Ugly Duckling” is about transformation and finding oneself among those of the same breed just as Thumbelina escapes attempts to marry her off to an insect, a toad and a mouse and eventually finds and marries her prince. Two of the tales are probably based on Rizal’s experience and observations abroad. From “Ang Puno ng Pino,” we find a description of the German tradition of Christmas trees in a letter, dated Nov. 11, 1886, to his sister Neneng from Berlin. Then the choice to translate “Ang Batang Babaing may  Dalang Sakafuego” could have resulted from the sight of a beggar girl he shared in a letter, written in October 1882, to his family: “One afternoon I saw a girl of about 15 or 16 years, pale, sick, sad, ragged, lying down in the hollow of a wall on a dark street, begging for alms. She was so weak, thin and sick that she couldn’t speak, and she only extended an emaciated hand. She must have been very beautiful judging by her big and languid eyes. It was cold and she was shivering. As I had no money with me I couldn’t give her anything.”

Trying to make sense of the deep archaic Tagalog did not stop me from wondering what moral lessons Rizal wanted to teach his nephews and nieces. What did he hope to achieve with these fairy tales? Those questions I leave for your reflection today in the hopes that if this manuscript is still extant somewhere, it will turn up and be scanned and digitized for posterity.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: fairy tales, featured columns, hans Christian Andersen, History, internet, Intramuros, Jose Rizal, MANILA, opinion
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