Book Title Noli Me Tangere
Author Jose Rizal
Translator Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin
Language English (translated from Spanish)
Copyright 1996 (originally published in 1887)
Publisher SHAPS Library of Translations
ISBN 0824819179
My Rating 5 stars (out of 5)

"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 them...

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 novel.

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 corrupt officialdom.

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 "El Filibusterismo").

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.