Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2011

Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum

The pen is mightier than the sword, they say, and it is not often that one has the opportunity to read a novel that has forged an independence movementNoli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) (1887) by José Rizal is such a book, for although its author advocated reform not independence, the novel was so instrumental in articulating a Filipino identity that it provoked resistance against the Spanish colonial regime. Ostensibly it is a love story, but one set against a backdrop of repression and violence. Rizal would be dead within ten years, executed by firing squad in Manila.  But his novel has lived on…

The author’s satirical intent is evident in the very first paragraph:

Towards the end of October, Don Santiago de los Santos, who was generally known as Captain Tiago, gave a dinner party that, despite its having been announced only that afternoon, which was not his usual practice, was the topic of every conversation in Bimondo and neighboring areas, and even as far as Intramuros.  In those days Captain Tiago was considered the most liberal of men, and it was known that the doors of his house, like those of his country, were closed to no one but tradesmen or perhaps a new or daring idea. (p5)

The Spanish authorities who read this book in the 1880s could be in no doubt, then, about this challenge, and Rizal had the church in his sights too.  On the same page his narrator says of Captain Tiago’s house that he doesn’t think that the owner would have demolished it ‘because this sort of work is usually reserved for God or nature, which has, it appears, many projects of this type under contract with our government’.  The book is a savage critique of the church, exposing brutality, venality and sexual exploitation of women.  The clergy are shown to encourage ignorance, superstition and social inequity on a grand scale.  And above all, the church conspires with the colonial authorities to ensure acquiescence in the status quo.

The plot is simple but portentous.  Crisóstomo Ibarra, a wealthy young man, returns from overseas study determined to do good for his people and to marry his childhood sweetheart, María Clara.  But his father, Don Rafael has died in prison.  He was wrongly accused of a crime, and his body desecrated because he was said to be a heretic by the local clergy, Fr Dámaso (who has his own nefarious reasons for doing so).  Ibarra endures insults about his father and an attempt on his life while trying to build a school that will empower the local people and lead to progress.  A patient, prudent man, he stoically tolerates obstacles to his plans until there is one insult too many and he loses his temper, invoking the wrath of the church and shocking the local people who have been cowed into submission by the clergy.

Ibarra has powerful friends who admire his love of country and the respect he upholds for his father’s memory – and his wealth protects him too for a while.  But it all ends badly, very badly indeed.  The light, mocking tone of the early chapters gives way to darker and darker moments as the perfidy of the clergy is revealed.

Although the serious intent of the work never falters, in some ways the story resembles a 19th century melodrama with black-and-white characterisation. Ibarra is handsome and noble, while María Clara is a model of virtuous Filipino womanhood.  There are two clearly discernible villains who don’t comply with Vatican rules about celibacy; and there’s a cynical host of supporting villains as well.  But at its best some of the supporting figures of mockery are as a good as anything you’d find in Dickens, notably Doña Victorina and her charlatan doctor husband who illustrate the vacuous nature of Manila society.

Parts of the novel are rather florid and there are some declamatory sections where Rizal gives his characters the opportunity to articulate anti-colonial political views at considerable length.  Overall, however, this is a remarkably accomplished first novel with a well-controlled sense of mystery to carry the impetus onward.  By law, all secondary school students in the Philippines study this novel (in either Tagalog or English), and although it’s quite long at 428 pages, I suspect that they would enjoy it.  I certainly did!

© Lisa Hill

Author:  José Rizal
Title: Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not)
Translated by Harold Augenbraum
Publisher: Penguin 2006
ISBN: 0143039695 / 9780143039693
Source: Gift of K.D., a friend from GoodReads.

 


Responses

  1. Wow, I have never heard of anyone having to study a book by law – that alone makes the books intriguing

    • Yes, it’s amazing…and a most interesting comparison with required reading for students here in Australia, much of which is YA, and therefore short, easy reading…

  2. So fascinating. I know so little about Filipino culture or history, and have been meaning to read this for some time – you have made me move it up my list.

    • Hello Walter, and welcome to chatting about books here:)
      I am trying to broaden my literary horizons to include more books from Southeast Asia and Asia, but it is so terribly difficult to find out about what’s worth reading. I had never heard of this one, which was sent to me by a Filipino friend of mine. It certainly deserves a wider audience, and it makes me wonder what other treasures there are out there that are yet to be discovered by he English-speaking world.

  3. The quotation you’ve given us is tantalizing indeed Lisa. Not the type of book I would normally seek out but “the doors of his house [being closed] to no one but tradesmen or perhaps a new or daring idea” is just too delicious to pass up so I will look for this one.

  4. I’ve had this book on my list since reading another Filipino author, F. Sionil Jose, whom I recommend BTW. Thanks for the review.

  5. Hi, I know this was posted years ago but I can’t help myself suggesting for you to read the sequel of Noli Me Tangere — El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster/The Reign of Greed) also from Dr. Jose Rizal. The plot happened 13 years after the last scene in Noli and Crisostomo Ibarra returns as Simoun to have his revenge against the government. It is also by law required by HS students to read (4th year) together with epics/corrido Ibong Adarna (1st year) and Florante at Laura (2nd year). It tackles Simoun’s (Ibarra’s) resort to violent means after his first attempt in reforming the country in Noli failed. If you loved Noli Me Tangere, you’ll love this as well. ;-)

    • Hello, thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      Yes, it is a while since I read this book but it has certainly stayed in my memory. It’s one of those books that shapes the way I think about the world. so thank you for the recommendation, I will put it high on my wishlist at Goodreads and then see about getting hold of a copy.

  6. I think it should be ‘kapitan Tiago’ not captain Tiago , ‘Pilosopo Tasio’ not Tasio the Philosopher.

    • Hello Andy, You’re probably right but I read this book in translation, and that’s the way the translator chose to translate the names. My guess is that he thought that his readers might not be able to work out what was meant if he didn’t, and it’s important to the story that readers realise the significance of these names.


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