"Noli Me Tangere" is Latin for "touch me not". It is the first of Jose Rizal's
two novels, being published in Spanish in the year 1887. I am reviewing here the translation
of this novel into English by Soledad Lacson-Locsin.
This novel is probably well known to many of the Filipinos on this forum, as it is required
reading at many universities in the Philippines. But it is virtually unknown to the vast majority
of Americans. I will therefore attempt to give you the take of one "kano" on this novel.
But before I begin, let me say that any reviewer of the novels of Jose Rizal is in a
peculiar position. A century after the events immediately following the publication of these
novels, we know that these novels have a profound historical importance in that they propelled the
population of the Philippines towards the Philippines revolution of 1898. But the author
writing in 1887 certainly could not have known that would be the case.
So how to approach this novel? Should I take the views expressed by the main character
Ibarra to be those of Jose Rizal himself? Or should I merely assume that the viewpoints
expressed are those of merely fictional characters? I must admit that I am in somewhat
of a quandary on this issue and I cannot fully resolve it. There do appear to be many passages
in the book where the author is speaking directly to his readership, while at other times the story
is fictional. I will attempt to keep the two separated.
Rizal says in his dedication:
"In the annals of human adversity, there is etched a cancer, of a breed so
malignant that the least contact exacerbates it and stirs in it the sharpest of pains.
And thus, many times amidst modern cultures I have wanted to evoke you, sometimes for memories of you
to keep me company, other times, to compare you with other nations - many times your beloved image appears to me
afflicted with a social cancer of similar malignancy.
Desiring your well-being, which is our own, and searching for the best cure,
I will do with you as the ancients of old did with their afflicted: expose them on
the steps of the temple so that each one who would come to invoke the Divine, would propose a cure for
So the purpose of the novel is quite clear. Rizal believes that Philippines society is diseased and he wishes to expose it as such.
He will touch on topics which up to now have remained untouchable. Hence the title of the
The novel tells the story about the misfortunes of a young Filipino returning to his
homeland after studying abroad in Spain and in other European countries. His name is Don
Crisostomo Ibarra. There are certain resemblances to Rizal himself. For example,
Rizal also studied abroad in Europe. Incidentally, the term "Filipino" during the
late 19th century referred only to those Spaniards who happened to be born in the
Philippines. It could also refer to people of mixed blood (i.e., the so called "mestizos") who
were born in the Philippines. The more derogatory term "Indio" was used to refer to the
natives of the country who were descended from the Malay race.
In the novel Ibarra is of mixed race, with his father being a pure Spaniard and his mother
being a Tagalog. Anyway, Ibarra has been absent from his country for many years.
He returns to his home town of San Diego (a fictional town) only to find that his father has died in prison
quite recently. The reason for his father's imprisonment is that the local parish priest,
Padre Damaso, has denounced him as a heretic for not going to confession. Further more, after
being buried in the graveyard, the body of Ibarra's father has been dug up and tossed into
the lake upon the orders of Padre Damaso.
Thus, the stage is set for the fireworks which must surely follow. Rizal's portrayal of
the Catholic friars who control the country must have been quite scandalous at the time.
They are portrayed as greedy, ignorant, selfish, and downright evil men who preach against all manner
of sin while committing the very acts they preach against. From the current
perspective though, this portrayal is less shocking because of the almost daily revelations concerning sexual abuse
and pedophilia within the Catholic priesthood and the attempts of the various bishops to cover it
up (I write this as a Roman Catholic myself). I suppose that a newspaper article on this subject
sent through a time machine to an epoch thirty or forty years ago would be as shocking then as
Rizal's novel was in the 19th century.
Ibarra does not take immediate revenge on the priestly malefactor for several reasons.
The main one being that Padre Damaso by his conduct has angered the civilian authorities of the
Philippines and has therefore been transferred to another parish. He is replaced by the thin,
weasely Padre Salvi. Ibarra is about to do physical violence to Padre Salvi until he is told
that it was his predecessor who committed these crimes against his father.
Rizal takes a long digression until the inevitable time when Ibarra confronts Padre
Damaso. During this time we are introduced to many different characters who represent various
aspects of Filipino society. First, there is Maria Clara, the fiancÚ of Ibarra.
Maria Clara is portrayed as a beautiful and demur young woman, the epitome of what a Filipina should be.
But she harbors a terrible secret which will not be revealed until the final chapters of the novel.
All the women are envious of her and the new parish priest, Padre Salvi, is completely
infatuated with her.
Don Tiago, Maria Clara's father, is a rich mestizo who has gained his riches by exploiting
the poor masses. He has a ridiculous notion of Catholicism and he pays homage to various relics
such as the Virgin of Antipolo and many others. There is Tasio, the town philosopher, who is
considered eccentric if not downright crazy by the town inhabitants. He spends his time reading
books and alone, among the inhabitants of the town, opposes the power of the clergy and the
There is Dona Victorina, the wife of "Doctor" Espadana who is a complete fraud.
He has been pretending to be a doctor for quite some time and he always prescribes the same treatment
for each illness. Dona Victorina tries to pretend to be from Spain even though her command of the
Spanish language is atrocious. She puts down the Indios even though she, herself, is one of them.
There is Dona Consolacion, the wife of the chief of police. She is portrayed as an ugly,
vicious, sadist who carries a bullwhip and is not afraid to use it on persons of lesser stature.
She and her husband physically abuse each other.
Perhaps most poignant is the story of the two altar boys Basilio and Crispin.
When Crispin is accused of stealing money from the Church, he is punished by flogging.
Basilio escapes to his mother's house. The police eventually arrest his mother Sisa and take her to the police
station for questioning. They want her to give back the money that her son stole.
When they realize that she knows nothing about it, they release her. She frantically searches for her
two sons but they have disappeared. Eventually she is driven mad by her despair.
What happened to her eldest son Basilio is not revealed until the final chapter, and her youngest son Crispin
is never heard from again.
Rizal uses these characters in little vignettes to paint a picture of the social cancer
which engulfs his country. Much of the novel involves social satire which Rizal uses to make
his point that Filipino society has become corrupt.
Ibarra decides to build a school for the local children. But while his plans go forward
evil plots are being hatched against him. During the dedication ceremony for the school the
cornerstone is to be laid in place by a hoist. Crisostomo descends into the pit with the
ceremonial trowel to set the new stone in place. But the hoist has been rigged to come crashing
down on him. He narrowly avoids being crushed to death due to a forewarning by the mysterious
Elias, who has befriended him.
During the town fiesta Padre Damaso has been invited to give the homily at the mass.
Later, he shows up at a luncheon where Ibarra is present. Padre Damaso makes the big mistake of referring
to Ibarra's father, and all of a sudden Ibarra snaps. He lunges at the hapless Franciscan and
knocks him down. He takes out a knife and is about to slit the priest's throat when Maria
Clara intervenes by placing herself between Ibarra and stricken cleric. Ibarra turns and
flees through the crowd.
What happens next is frankly unbelievable in my opinion. Ibarra would have been arrested
immediately by the police in real life, but Rizal has him attend a dinner in honor of the
Governor General, the highest official in the country. The civil authorities are not on good
terms with the religious orders and so the Governor General takes Ibarra's side in the
dispute. Meanwhile, the church officials have excommunicated Ibarra but the Governor General
seeks to overturn their decision by appealing Ibarra's case to the archbishop.
I was somewhat perplexed by this part of the story. Was Rizal sucking up to the Spanish
authorities by making them appear good in his novel in comparison to the Spanish priests?
I don't know, but Rizal's description of the Governor General in chapter 38 is nothing short
of a whitewash of the Spanish regime in my opinion. The Governor General is portrayed as an
honest and decent man who only seeks the good of the Philippines. This same Spanish official
would order Rizal executed in real life only a decade later.
Elias, the enigmatic friend of Ibarra, now prevails upon Ibarra to help him in redressing
the wrongs of the government against the people. The two of them have an animated conversation in
which Elias tells Crisostomo the following:
"Without struggle there is no freedom. Without freedom there is no light.
You say that you know very little of your country; I believe you. You do not see
the forthcoming struggle, you do not see the cloud on the horizon; the struggle begins in the sphere of ideas to come
down to the arena which will be dyed in blood. I hear God's voice. Woe unto
those who want to resist Him. History has not been written for them!"
Of course, this is Rizal predicting the coming Philippines Revolution which will happen
only a decade later. He sees it as a bloody struggle and historically inevitable.
Interestingly, he sees it first being waged in the area of ideas, which is essentially what
Rizal was executed for. So in that sense Rizal was the first casualty of the war he predicted
more than a decade before it happened.
The enemies of Ibarra now concoct a plot to attack the town police station and blame it on
Ibarra. They recruit a few of the malcontents in the town to stage the attack.
At the last minute Elias tries to warn Ibarra of the plot but it is too late.
Ibarra is captured and accused of insurrection. The other members of the plot are
captured but they deny Ibarra's involvement so they are tortured into false confessions.
Ibarra is imprisoned until his friend Elias rescues him. The novel doesn't say exactly how.
Ibarra makes one last trip to see his former fiancÚ Maria Clara who is now poised to marry
another. It is at this meeting that Maria Clara reveals her shocking secret, which is that Padre
Damaso is her real biological father. I'm sure that this plot element must have enraged the
Catholic Church in Rizal's day. Even though it was common knowledge that the mestizo class in
the Philippines came into being mainly via the unions of priests and native women, one did not
go around talking about it or writing about it.
Ibarra and Elias then attempt a daring escape across the lake where they are pursued by
the police. After taking some shots at Elias the police report that they have killed Ibarra.
When this news reaches Maria Clara she is in despair. She cancels her wedding plans and
enters the nunnery. The last we hear of her she is safely ensconced in the convent where late at
night she walks to the top of the hill during a lightning storm and dares God to strike her dead.
Has she gone mad? The book is not clear on this.
Elias being wounded during the escape attempt, finally succumbs to his wounds.
The fate of Crisostomo Ibarra is not mentioned (of course I know he resurfaces in the sequel
Wow, what a book! That's all I can say. Rizal really knew how to write.
And woe unto those who were the target of his savage wit. He really knew how to skewer people.
His descriptions of the religious attitudes of some of the people really made me laugh.
I wonder how much has really changed in a century.
The novels of Jose Rizal, being the most important works in the national literature, what
do they have to say about the Filipino character? Well, there is a sense of foreboding tragedy, at
least in this novel. There is the sense that the Filipino people must go through Hell before they
can get to Heaven. Misfortune is to be expected and to be endured patiently.
There is the sense that the Filipino people exist in a natural state of oppression caused by foreign invaders.
Whatever foreigners say and whatever foreigners do must be inherently better than what the
Filipinos say or do for themselves. This is the legacy of three and a half centuries of Spanish
rule and another fifty years of American rule, which is only now being dissipated.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a greater appreciation of the
Filipino experience. I give it my highest rating (5 stars). I found the translation to be
enjoyable and lively. It is heavily footnoted throughout but I found that it is better to plow
right through the footnotes and read them at the end, rather than to stop and look up each one as
you encounter it.