Travelers to the Philippines are sometimes puzzled to see the statue of this same man, José Rizal, in practically every town plaza on the islands. But if you ask any Filipino, you’ll get a blank stare, as if to say — Isn’t it obvious? Filipinos honor as their national hero not a soldier like Washington but a poet and novelist — José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda (1861–96). He has defined the nation’s life. Not only that — everything he wrote, from medical scribblings to letters asking his mother to send him bagoong (the great condiment, fermented shrimp fry, that goes with all things good), has been meticulously published, so that for any scandal or self-reflection, historical incident or political mess, we have a quote from Rizal to give us comfort or condemnation.
I grew up seeing the world via Rizal. It helps that Rizal was such a traveler that he was actually in England when Jack the Ripper was on the loose and in Austria when Hitler’s parents were yet to be. He wrote to his family about playing the yo-yo aboard a ship to America, his letter lightly mocking his fellow passengers who marveled at his skill. Thus, Filipinos, who in my experience eat up world history as gossip, with a weirdly self-referential madcap irony, have fun inserting Rizal everywhere, like a global Forrest Gump, inventing toys, spawning Hitler’s mom, or serial-killing women on Primrose Hill — where, coincidentally, Rizal did live in the neighborhood of Jack the Ripper’s exploits, in Camden. In his actual life, when he returned from Europe to Manila in 1891, dressed in his dark overcoat and speaking his many tongues, he was rumored to be a German spy, an agent of the European intriguer Otto von Bismarck. He was exiled in 1892 and, four years later, sentenced to die.
But it’s his death we most remember, each December 30th, with ceremonies of national mourning as we wait for the gun salutes and once again endure politicians’ oratorical fervor, enacting recursive grief on the exact spot at the lunette park in Manila — Bagumbayan, a.k.a. Luneta — where the Spaniards executed him in 1896 for writing a novel. His death by firing squad sparked the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia, led by the Manila-born secret society Katipunan, for whom Rizal’s name and novels (despite his controversial, and perhaps understandable, disavowal of revolution at his doomed trial) were password and inspiration.
His first novel, Noli Me Tángere (literally, Touch Me Not, though translated once as The Social Cancer), popularly called the Noli, was published in 1887 and read surreptitiously, like samizdat in Stalinist Russia — furtively borrowed, smuggled in from Hong Kong, Madrid, Ghent, and Berlin by radicals called propagandistas, agitators for reforms from Spain. The Noli, not surprisingly, has been annotated to death. Patriotic notions have perhaps killed his quite ambiguous art more fatally than the Spaniards could. After Filipinos were “freed” from their second colonizer, the United States, who betrayed its allies the Filipinos in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the new republic in the 1950s enacted the Rizal Law, requiring schools to teach his books. But the law did not legislate reading Rizal in the original Spanish, and so, as a child, I read him in translation — in Tagalog. Most Filipinos now, if they read him at all, read him in English. Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983), a key text on the concept, properly anchored his theory via the Filipino nation’s reading of itself through Rizal. A twice-colonized, four-times-occupied (by the Spaniards, British, Americans, and Japanese), archipelagic people of at least 150 languages and more than 7,000 islands, we have imagined ourselves as a nation through his novels. As the writer Eric Gamalinda has noted, only two things unite Filipinos: gossip and José Rizal.
I hated Rizal as a kid. Each year, we had to read child-friendly parables in The Rizal Caravan, a slim series of Aesopian tales. Grade One: Rizal’s Birth. He was the love of his mother’s life, and he promised her he would become an eye doctor to cure her cataracts. (Apart from being a novelist, poet, sculptor, fencer, and martyr, Rizal was also an ophthalmologist.) Grade Two: Rizal’s Childhood. He had a pet chicken, and he refused to eat when he realized it was in his favorite stew, tinola. Grade Three: Rizal’s Studies. On a boat to elementary school in Biñan, he lost one slipper on Laguna de Bay and so tossed off its partner in the saintly hope that some poor child would find and use the pair. And so on and so forth in hagiographic detail until finally, at last, in Grade Six, he died. This moralistic killjoy, self-righteous eater, holy slipper-tosser, and Where’s Waldo of a world traveler was my earliest academic bane. My teacher, bless her, taught the Noli and the Fili in Tagalog class with that aqueous, junior-high striving for symbolism that drowns joy.
But at Johns Hopkins, the lone foreigner in my graduate writing program, I went to a random history lecture about how Rizal was bowdlerized, an ironical artist turned into a mealy-mouthed prig, to fit Manila’s Americanized colonial culture. So said the visiting scholar, Benedict Anderson, a polymath himself, who praised above all Rizal’s irreverent, unsparing wit. Homesick, and chastised by the lecture of that Marxist Irishman, I began rereading Rizal’s novels, now translated with humor intact by Harold Augenbraum for Penguin Classics, and then I read his essays and letters, then his critical annotations of a 17th-century history of the Philippines called the Morga (Antonio de Morga’s 1609 Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas), then I began my own Where’s Rizal tour of Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, London, San Francisco, even nondescript Schaffhausen, Switzerland — which, weirdly, also has a plaque saying Rizal slept there, albeit with the neutrality of the Swiss, that is, not quite explaining why.
And I remain obsessed.
I love the Noli, which created a nation, but my favorite is the Fili, which reveals the writer. In the Fili, you can see how Rizal revised (a blasphemous thought for Filipinos). I wrote a whole novel mourning his third, unfinished novel — one might say it was aborted (or stillborn, like his rumored out-of-wedlock son) during his exile in Dapitan. What Rizal did was write seminal political art-novels without apology — books terser, more elegant, and more consequential in effect than those of Victor Hugo, his favorite writer. He forged a path in theorizing anti-colonialism through art. He understood early what we, in our writing workshops, have been late to recognize — that polemics and art do mix. In fact, they should. In one letter, he states:
[T]he question of writing in more or less literary style is secondary; the principal thing is to think and feel rightly, work with a purpose, and the pen will take care of transmitting it. The principal thing […] is not to be a literary man but to be a good man, a good citizen.
When I was younger, a workshop student under the sway of New Criticism, I would have thought this notion antique. Now that I know better, a novelist writing under late capitalism, I see that it is radical.
“Let the Philippine bolo [knife] speak,” Rizal said in that same letter. Born in the same decade as W. E. B. Du Bois, Rizal reenvisioned history in his Morga in the same vein as Du Bois writing about Reconstruction: he imagined the desires of the oppressed as a counterweight to the lies of the oppressor. Unlike Du Bois, Rizal did not live long enough to test his theories against an archive, to experience revolution, or even to change his mind. His bourgeois, masculinist views remain encased in their nationalist amber. He was executed by firing squad at the age of 35, four years before the dawn of the 20th century. The Dutchman Multatuli and Brazil’s Machado de Assis are his nearest confreres, but as an experimental novelist making political art in his colonizer’s tongue, he is Original Gangster: sui generis, perhaps because he so adamantly centered himself, his being Filipino — that is, an artist of many worlds and tongues.
To the credit of Filipinos, we have imagined a nation through Rizal’s OG fiction. And yes, like Rizal’s third novel, our revolution is unfinished, definitely revisable, and a dream. The present-day criminal leaders of the Philippines, the ones we have installed ourselves, tell us that their familiar recidivism into our colonizers’ fascism remains our nightmare. Or is it that the abject poverty of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s 31 million voters makes one cling to the promises of beasts? In any case, so many of us are still reeling from the return of the Marcos family, epitome of tyranny, to power. Under Marcos Jr. this year, a rebel-poet, Ericson Acosta, was killed. Last year, under the country’s second dictator Rodrigo Duterte (his daughter is now vice-president), Acosta’s wife, the rebel-poet Kerima Tariman, was killed. For a country whose national hero is a poet, such murders are no small irony — nor a great surprise. But make no mistake: that’s why it’s important that the country has Rizal. The radicalism of the nation’s desire abides in Rizal’s art, unscrambling our code word, freedom — indelible even in translation. If the day comes when the dream of Rizal is toppled, so are the hopes for a nation free from tyranny, from fascists who kill their rebel-poets, their Indigenous activists, and their worker-protesters; who distort history for power’s sake; and who feed on the labor of the poor to shamelessly engorge themselves.
The life and work of Rizal also instruct on a larger stage, as in too many places, north and south, Europe and Asia, the United States and the Philippines, we see a turn to authoritarians, to despots and their stooges the corporatists (or the other way around: the capitalists and their henchmen, the despots), who prey on the labor and dreams of millions in these unstable economic times to satisfy their unfathomable greed. The clarion artistry of Rizal, world-embracing, rigorous, always experimenting, is a throwback to that necessary concept of the revolutionary era that he helped to forge — a quite simple notion of art that seems increasingly imperative under capitalism’s rampage, our world’s social cancer: the notion that art and politics must mix. It’s instructive that Rizal made his multifaceted, ambiguous art on the paradoxical truism that the “question of writing […] is secondary,” and that with such clarity, he helped to rouse a nation. For Rizal, as perhaps for us artists today, to make complex art, the principal thing must be protest.
Let the knife, the Philippine bolo, speak.
Gina Apostol is the author of Gun Dealers’ Daughter (2010) and, most recently, Insurrecto (2018). Her first novel, Bibliolepsy (1997), will be out in a US edition in 2022. She has previously written for Los Angeles Review of Books about Jorge Luis Borges, José Rizal, and Imelda Marcos.