Touching Not Allowed: Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere

29 12 2010
"Where did the bad priest touch you?" is disturbingly not a joke considering the source.

Image from the Penguin Classics US website

Now that’s heavy.

Choosing my returning post back to blogging was no contest. After all the chaos and confusion of the holidays – technically I’m still in the midst of that chaos and confusion, as well as the paying of credit card bills – finally finding time to write in the wee hours of December 30 is pure serendipity. It’s either that or coincidence – I can never keep those two straight.

So, in honor of the date, as more than a century ago, the author of the above book was preparing to be shot, let me ruminate on his opus – and coincidentally adding a new tag to my blog – the Noli.

For the non-Filipino, hearing the name “Jose Rizal” is essentially the same as hearing about the obscure national heroes of other countries.  But here  in the Philippines, the shadow of Rizal looms large. To put it into perspective, I think we’re the only country who dedicates an entire college course to their national hero. Smacks of indoctrination and all, but still national pride wins the day. We also dedicate several months reading the great man’s duology of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo during high school. Quite a few people can honestly say that the book is probably one of the few books they’ve read or at least know the Cliff Notes version of the main points.

Which is total crap.

Let’s be honest here – anyone forced to read a book will either c0me to hate it or just plain don’t care about it. Reading is much more than absorbing words on a page. You can do that, of course. We do that when we read our iPod’s instruction manual – however that is not the approach that one should take when dealing with a work of literature. A good book is a meal, to be tasted and savored – not to be force fed down a man’s gullet like it was some sort of fiber-rich fad food.

So anyone in the crowd read Noli Me Tangere and the El Filibusterismo of his own free will and at the age of adulthood?

The conspicuous dearth of raised hands includes me, of course. But that may soon change – I stumbled upon the Penguin Classics version seen above at Fully Booked and the thought occurred to me to go read it again. Alas, the price tag was 669 pesos. The mass-produced Tagalog translation issued to school boys and girls nationwide costs less than a third of that; still it is a Penguin Classic. Thankfully, there are free translations on the Internet – most notable is the one found at Still, a solid book in my hands will always be preferred so I’m still leaning towards buying a copy.

However, the thought has occurred to me – why am I reading a translation of my own country’s seminal novel? I shouldn’t be reading a translation – I should be reading the original text! But, alas, my Spanish is nearly non-existent – something which I really should correct – and Rizal for all his polyglotic abilities did not predict that English would eclipse Spanish in his home isles. If he did, he’d probably have written three versions of his novels; that was well within his capabilities. Plus, I can’t seem to find a full non-abridged modern publishing of Noli and El Fili at all.

Why the hang-up on language? Language is more than a mode of speech – it carries nuance, subtleties that are lost in translation,  no matter how accurate. Ask a Filipino on the street about the Noli and he will tell you about the injustice, the attack on colonialism. He will not tell you about the satire, the black comedy that hints at Rizal’s European influence. He will not talk about the sheer melodrama of the entire sequence, the near-operatic levels of tragedy. He will talk about the message and not the art.

There is something ever-slightly soulless about that.

So, time to fold my sleeves and pick out a Spanish language workbook and look for a Spanish copy of Noli. There are worst ways to learn a language, after all.

I do now know how to end this stream of through but with the first lines of the book itself, in the glorious lyrical Spanish of the original:

A fines de octubre, don Santiago de los Santos, conocido popularmente bajo el nombre de Capitán Tiago, daba una cena, que, sin embargo de haberlo anunciado aquella tarde tan sólo, contra su costumbre, era ya el tema de todas las conversaciones en Binondo, en otros arrabales y hasta en Intramuros.




One response

18 03 2011
Pepe Alas

Perceptive thoughts. Congratulations, dude. You just earned my respect. Keep it up with your Spanish studies. I’m sure you’ll make it.

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