Book Review: Noli Me Tangere
“I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land! You, who have it to see, welcome it — and forget not those who have fallen during the night!” – Elias
I know of two anecdotes regarding Rizal’s poem, Mi Ultimo Adios. The first anecdote is about how US Congressman Henry A. Cooper recited Rizal’s final poem to the US Congress as a part of his effort to lobby for the self-government of the Philippines. This moved the US Congress to such a degree that they passed a bill known as the Cooper Act which granted, among many things, the US Bill of Rights to the Philippines; and allowed the Philippines to send two representatives to the US Congress. The second anecdote is about how Rosihan Anwar, an Indonesian journalist, translated the poem into Indonesian and subsequently read it over radio for all Indonesians to hear. Then, during the Indonesian National Revolution, Indonesian soldiers recited the poem before going into battle to serve as their inspiration. Some of them may not have known Rizal, but they recognized that the poem transcended the author and was one of their sources for bravery.
Rizal is a very monumental figure in the history of anti-colonialism not only in the Philippines but in Asia as well. He is the contemporaries of Sun Yat Sen of China and Rabindranath Tagore of India. Although he did not advocate open revolution, which he considered a shortcut to independence (“Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?”), he still advocated for independence through reforms and assimilation with Spain. He believed that if, little by little, we acquire the dignity of people worthy of independence then we will become worthy of being a free nation.
His views regarding this can be found in his novel, Noli Me Tangere(Touch Me Not) which tells the story of Ibarra, a bright young man, who dreams of a Philippines that is educated and dignified and who has resolved to play a part in changing his country by building a school in his hometown. Along the way, we met numerous characters who support Ibarra wholeheartedly; support him in the open but oppose him secretly; and oppose him directly. The narrative is basically about what precipitated Ibarra’s downfall.
However, there are a lot of other characters in Noli who experienced, in varying degrees, what will happen to Ibarra at the time of the book’s end. There is Sisa who was robbed of her sanity because of the burden of losing her two sons; there is Elias who lost everything before he was even born due to his ancestor’s unjust misfortune; there is the schoolteacher who is openly mocked even if he is doing what is best for his students; there is Don Anastasio perhaps the only enlightened man in the whole town yet he is considered as crazy; and many more. The book, then, is more about the injustices suffered by those who have done nothing to merit such misfortune and those who only seek to do good. And then there are those who live a comfortable life because either they are ignorant of the injustices in the system or because they are evil.
Noli Me Tangere is more of a social commentary than a novel. The static characters, the sometimes confusing narrative, and the overabundance of words are among its flaws. But Rizal does not need to be a master writer in writing Noli Me Tangere because the novel is a work intended for the awakening of the Filipino people against the shadows of tyranny. Noli Me Tangere, if it were written today, would not be about the Palanca Award or the Man Asia Literary Prize. It would be to affect social change and revive Filipino nationalism, pride, and dignity.
And, even if it has flaws, Noli Me Tangere is still an enjoyable read because of how it portrayed Spanish-era Philippines. From the pretentiousness of Indios who wants to become Spaniards to the love dance of Ibarra and Maria Clara; and the politics among the friars, the government, and the people. The dynamics between the characters, although most of them are static, are funny, heartbreaking, and lovely sometimes all at the same time.
For all the years that have passed since its publication, Noli Me Tangere still remains relevant. We are still beset with social injustice and inequality that Rizal must be rolling in his grave right now. The social cancer has not yet been eradicated but I know that, just like Rizal, every decent Filipino in the country right now is hoping for the day that our national hero’s dream will be fully realized and such a dream will come closer within our grasp if we, even in our own small way, do our part.