16 January, 2012Issue 18.1Asia & AustraliaHistory

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An Enormous Will at Work

Aaron R. Hanlon

BritishJohn Nery
Revolutionary Spirit: José Rizal in Southeast Asia
ISEAS Publishing, 2011
280 Pages
ISBN 978-981-4345-05-7


Since his revolutionary days, Argentinian guerilla-polymath Ernesto “Ché” Guevara has become so iconic that his silhouetted visage is widely recognizable throughout the world, even among those outside the various subcultures of the countercultural left. Screen-printed t-shirts featuring the long-haired, moustachioed revolutionary from the neck up have become mainstays of pop-art fashion, so much so that your first encounter with Ché is as likely to have been at a street vendor as in a Latin American history class. For this reason the choice of cover for John Nery’s new history of 19th-century Filipino patriot José Rizal is curious: Rizal, like Guevara a physician, polymath, author, and national hero widely associated with revolutionary uprising against colonial power, appears in screen-printed silhouette above the title, staring resolutely over your right shoulder.

Yet Rizal, a powerful intellect whose novels Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891) led, first, to his execution, at age 35 by the Spanish authorities, then the Philippine revolution against Spanish colonial occupation, does not appear on t-shirts. As Nery meticulously demonstrates, Rizal is at once a household name in Southeast Asia and a contested figure whose legacy, like those of Thomas Jefferson, Sun Yat-sen, and other comparable revolutionary intellectuals, has become something of an ideological battleground for competing understandings of the stakes of political independence and national sovereignty. For some, Rizal was a Pinoy Don Quixote, a Spanish-influenced idealist and predestined martyr who praised revolution in theory, but loathed the practicality of armed resistance. For others, he was the practical ophthalmologist who believed in top-down reform and failed to imagine the latent power of a people’s movement, a popular uprising. The primary intervention of Revolutionary Spirit is metahistorical: to see the history of Rizal in Southeast Asia precisely as a disputed one, then to follow each strand of disputation from its 19th-century roots to its present day loose end within the fabric of Rizal’s important and globally understated legacy.

Benedict Anderson most prominently introduced Rizal and Noli Me Tangere to worldwide audiences in the foundational Imagined Communities (1983), though Rizal was the subject of a rich body of scholarly work long before Western historians like Anderson took notice. In addition to his novels, poetry, and translations, Rizal left behind hundreds of written correspondences, a corpus that Nery suggests “may almost be said to be Rizal’s first novel”. Between Spanish scholar and colonial administrator Wenceslao Retana’s Vida y Escritos (Life and Writings, 1907), Léon Maria Guerrero’s seminal Rizal biography, The First Filipino (1962), and Syed Hussein Alatas’s groundbreaking post-colonial study The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977), Rizal’s importance in the history of Southeast Asian anti-colonial resistance cannot be overstated. Rizal has been widely studied, cited, and translated by numerous Southeast Asian leaders and public intellectuals, from Indonesian nationalists like Tan Malaka and Sukarno to Malaysian scholars like Chandra Muzaffar and Shaharuddin bin Maaruf. Nery’s history effectively situates Rizal as not only a founding hero of Philippine independence from Spain and later America, but an inspirational figure, symbolic of a broader Malay identity, evoked in Indonesian and Malaysian struggles against Dutch, Japanese, and British occupation.

Though Nery’s study undoubtedly makes its metahistorical mark on contemporary scholarly disputes over Rizal’s legacy, no account of Rizal can be as gravely consequential as Retana’s “Un Separatista Filipino” (“A Filipino Separatist”), a misleading but ultimately damning piece on Rizal’s anti-colonial activism, published in the 30 September 1896 issue of the Spanish propaganda paper La Politicia de Espa√±a en Filipinas. Retana, who would later become an admirer of Rizal before writing Vida y Escritos, attributed to Rizal “many of the evils” of Philippine insurrection, claiming that Rizal “hate[d] Spaniards with a passion”. Nery’s chilling discussion of the similarities between Retana’s accusations and those of Raphael Dominguez, the Spanish investigating officer whose testimony resulted in Rizal’s conviction as “the principal organizer and the very soul of the Philippine insurrection”, then his death sentence, casts Retana plausibly as a Pontius Pilate figure with blood on his hands. Rizal’s final poem, “Adios, Patrio Adorada” (“Goodbye, Land I Adore”; often referred to as “Mi √∫ltimo adi√≥s”, “My last farewell”), penned the evening before his 30 December 1896 execution by musket fire, became an immediate rallying call for the Philippine revolution, and was later translated by Rosihan Anwar to inspire soldiers of the Indonesian independence movement.

From the seemingly romantic (or romanticized) trajectory of Rizal’s life—the talented writer and public intellectual who was educated in Europe, traveled the world, saw his art as a means to revolution, returned to his homeland for love of country despite the dangers that awaited him, and paid with his life for his politically charged art and the independence of his people—stems the problematic image of Rizal as Quixote. In addition to highlighting Rizal’s idealism versus his pragmatism as one of the central disputes over Rizal’s legacy, Nery gives us Miguel de Unamuno’s “poetic interpretation of Rizal”. Unamuno called Rizal “Quijote oriental”, a “Quijote of thought, who looked with repugnance upon the impurities of reality”. This stands in contrast to Nery’s careful discussion of the emergence in the 1920s of Andres Bonifacio, early leader of the Filipino revolutionary group the Katipunan, as a figure of Rizaline esteem in the national consciousness of the Filipino people. As Nery explains, when Bonifacio and the Katipunan sought Rizal’s approval of their plans for armed revolution in 1896, a pragmatic Rizal responded by urging Bonifacio that it was too soon, that the people had not yet secured the necessary weapons and funds for an effective armed resistance.

These competing modalities—quixotic Rizal versus Rizal the measured pragmatist; the predestined martyr versus the “enormous will at work”; the radical insurrectionist versus the conservative intellectual—form the animating structure of Nery’s history, enabling him to exercise his apparent talent for fastidious, circumspect historicizing. Nery works widely and adeptly with sources in, among others, Tagalog, Spanish, and English—the primary languages in which Rizal is read today—and pays refreshingly close attention to intertextual commonalities in his primary sources. Revolutionary Spirit occasionally takes on a plodding tone when Nery’s penchant for obscure detail gets in the way of the narrative; but the benefit is usually worth the cost. Though one sometimes gets the sense that Nery is belaboring an issue of little consequence, he does eventually emerge from a narrative cloud of minutia to make a forceful point. Above all, however, what distinguishes Nery’s history as a particularly important contribution to the histories of Rizal and the Southeast Asian independence movements of his era is Nery’s skill and versatility as a reader of texts. Nery is at his best as an historian when engaged in close reading. The metahistorical quality of Revolutionary Spirit relies significantly on Nery’s ability to close read the speeches of Sukarno against those of Malaka, the articles of Retana against the findings of Dominguez, and The Myth of the Lazy Native against Rizal’s On the Indolence of the Filipinos (1890), among countless other texts that Nery fruitfully brings together. Ultimately, a history of a writer as prolific and consequential as Rizal demands an historian with a distinctly literary sensibility—and Nery fits the bill.

Aaron R. Hanlon is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Linacre College, Oxford.