NOLI ME TANGERE by JOSE RIZALALLEN GABORRO Reviews
Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal, Translated by Harold Augenbraum
(Penguin Classics, New York, 2006)
When the Rainbow Goddess Wept by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
(University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1999)
[Review first published in Philippine News (July 26-August 1, 2006)]
Editor's Note: Galatea Resurrects reviews poetry publications/projects, as well as works in other forms by poets. This review of two novels by Filipino authors is featured here because Jose Rizal was also a poet.
You know that any hardbound novel has reached a new high-water mark when it gets so far as to be published in softcover. It is a sign of at least commercial, if not necessarily artistic, recognition. Such a novel, having made the leap from hardcover to paperback, can be the stuff that legends are made of. Or in more modest terms, it can be a creative genuflection reflecting the rich history of a particular culture. Either way, the piece, if worth its weight in salt, is destined to have a good, long shelf life.
Having first emerged onto their respective literary scenes almost a century apart, José Rizal’s momentous Noli Me Tangere (“Touch Me Not”) and Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s captivating When The Rainbow Goddess Wept have come out in paperback looking and reading as if they were both written yesterday. Rizal’s “Noli” was first published in 1887, in the midst of the Philippine revolution against Spanish rule, while original copies of Rainbow Goddess appeared in 1994.
Seeing the “Noli” in paperback is nothing new as it has been distributed before in paperback. What makes the 2006 version so special is that it was published by Penguin Classics, a branch of the distinguished Penguin Books publishing house. Rizal’s book is the first piece of Filipino literature ever to be printed by Penguin Classics, a publisher of some of the world’s finest works of literature.
Brainard’s Rainbow Goddess may fall well below the historical stature that has been conferred on Rizal’s more eminent Noli, but her novel is no less a poignant and intense expression of Philippine culture and history. Whereas the enduring appeal of Rizal’s Noli lies in part in its fertile exploration of the Philippines’s turbulent transition to modernity, the Rainbow Goddess does the opposite by transporting us back into the all but forgotten past, the past of home-grown mythological stories.
Published in paperback by the University of Michigan Press, Rainbow Goddess gives a harsh and indelible account of the toll that war can take on a person, especially on a nine-year old girl like Yvonne Macaraig, the novel’s main character. Macaraig becomes a reluctant eyewitness to the torment being endured by the Filipino people during the Japanese occupation in World War Two. She finds solace from the carnage and destruction in the Philippine myths and folktales bequeathed to her by bygone generations.
One of the functions of myth is to furnish meaning to existence, above all an existence jaded by something as terrible as war in its most cruelest form. For many Filipinos today, the adversary is modern existence which has alienated them from their genuine nature, indeed from their cultural identity. In Rainbow Goddess, Brainard manages a delicate balance between the daunting reality of the modern ethos and the existential wonders of Filipino mythological narratives. Brainard in short, is not just articulating a representation of Filipino culture—she is also saving Filipino readers, if for a time, from the turmoil of our modern lives.
An eternal source of national pride for Filipinos from all walks of life, José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere is considered to be the first major literary conduit for spreading a message of Filipino, and in a larger context, Asian, nationalism in opposition to colonial subjugation. It is in this novel where Rizal comes into his own as an egalitarian writer of conscience and justice. The Noli was an important milestone in the eventual christening of José Rizal as Philippine national hero and in his personal and public struggle to mold an autonomous Filipino identity.
Penguin Classics’s edition of the Noli is well-served by Harold Augenbraum’s English translation. His intelligent and finely tuned translation brings back to life the characters of the novel that Filipinos know so well. In the 2006 edition, we are once again enthralled by the cultured, bourgeois mestizo Crisóstomo Ibarra and his love for the prim and beautiful María Clara. We will also find ourselves loathing the infamous figure of Padre Dámaso and how he symbolized the immorality and corruption of the Catholic Church in pre-revolutionary Philippines. We also meet up again with the eccentric but sagacious Tasio the Philosopher, as well as with the rest of the Noli’s unforgettable host of actors.
Experiencing reading the Noli again will also remind us of the sacrifice that Rizal made for his country. Rather than continue his relatively comfortable life abroad, he returned home to teach some grand lessons, lessons that would galvanize the Filipino national consciousness and inspire critical but constructive contemplations about the meaning of being a Filipino.
Filipinos have been guilty of separating the past from the present-day. Through the language of writers like José Rizal and Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, this national fallacy is being perceived for the mistake that it is. As it happens, both authors’ books may be about events that took place long ago, but their significance is steeped in how Filipinos respond to the demands and complexities of our time.
Allen Gaborro is an art and book reviewer for the Philippine News weekly. He is also a freelance writer who has written historical, political, and cultural articles. Allen is a member of the Philippine American Writers' Association (PAWA) of Northern California. He is based in San Francisco, California.