I first read Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo in elementary school, in simplified English translations for young readers put out by Abiva Publishing. What I liked about these books were their beautiful illustrations (having lost my copies of these books, I cannot remember the name of the illustrator), which have done more to fix my mental images of Maria Clara, Ibarra/Simoun, and Elias than any other book or film or play since.
In high school, we studied the Noli and the Fili in abridged Filipino versions. We were fortunate enough to have had a wonderful teacher, aptly surnamed Liwanag, whose spot-quizzes on quotations and details from the books made us realize that if we wanted to get a perfect score, we would have to read the unabridged, unexpurgated editions.
My mother, who matriculated at the University of the Philippines, had the Leon Ma. Guerrero translations in our bookcase, but from the beginning, I preferred the Charles Derbyshire translation, the turn-of-the-century English of which seemed a better match for Rizal’s tropical Spanish, with its long sentences and breathless apostrophes and heaps of adjectives, than Guerrero’s “modern” rendition. (In graduate school, I learned from Ben Anderson that Guerrero tried to “clean up” the Noli and Fili, stifling the subversiveness of Rizal’s laughter, entombing the novels in a dead past, sanitizing their earthy and radical content, and cutting the reader off from the local references–most of them in Tagalog– and European allusions.) In fact, two of the first books I bought with my own savings in high school were Derbyshire’s brick-red “The Social Cancer” and apple-green “The Reign of Greed.” I have them still, even though they now sit dog-eared and loose-leafed alongside the National Historical Institute Spanish editions, Guerrero, Soledad Lacson-Locsin, Harold Augenbraum, and Virgilio Almario.
Looking back now, and reading Rizal in the original Spanish, I can see the points in the novels at which Derbyshire’s translation falls short of describing the kind of everyday life we Filipinos take for granted. Take, for example, the scene in the Fili where the students gather at the Pansiteria Macanista de Buen Gusto to commiserate with each other on their failure to secure official permission to establish a Spanish-language academy. Derbyshire has Makaraig listing the ingredients of the pancit langlang as “vermicelli, crabs or shrimps, egg paste, scraps of chicken, and I don’t know what else,” but if we re-translate Rizal’s recipe, we find that the original list went something like this: “mushrooms, crabs or shrimp, noodles, pieces of chicken, and I don’t know what else.”
Another example would be the difficulty in capturing the kind of mood changes and cravings experienced by expectant mothers, summed up in the Filipino word “lihi”. Derbyshire translates this as “Capriciousness, natural in her condition.” Elsewhere, Rizal uses the Spanish term “antojos,” meaning “cravings,” but these are not ordinary cravings, because they are specific to pregnancy.
It’s not just translation that poses challenges to understanding Rizal. We have had to deal with the sediments of meaning that have collected over the century and decades since the publication of the novels, as we encounter Rizal and his works in translation, in the classroom, in the movies and theaters, in newspapers and magazines, in field trips (I remember a female high school classmate of mine exclaiming over Rizal’s clothes on display in Fort Santiago: “But I’m taller than Rizal!”), in published photos, in public and private discussions.
Rizal is on the one-peso coin, in the Luneta Park, on the storefronts of business establishments; he is a province, a Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office Match and Win ticket. Some politicians have blasted the attempt of Distileria Limtuaco to register Rizal, along with Gomburza and Andres Bonifacio, as brand names for their liquor products. Even if this fails, who can forget the Maria Clara sangría, and—many years back—the posthumous use of Rizal’s name and image to sell tobacco, sarsaparilla, matches, soft drinks and soda water, cement, vinegar substitute, drink coasters, movie tickets (as detailed by Pinoy Kollektor)?
While Rizal’s face is ubiquitous, that of Ibarra/Simoun and Elias—his two main protagonists—leaves a lot more to the imagination. It is true that Gerardo de Leon’s movie adaptations, released in the early 1960s and now available on YouTube, have given these characters the flesh and voice of some of the country’s leading actors, with Eddie del Mar’s pleasant-looking but stolid Ibarra being overshadowed by the salakot-wearing Leopoldo Salcedo’s sexy Elias. (Del Mar had specialized in playing Rizal in several movies in the 1950s.) Pancho Magalona’s deep-voiced, debonair Simoun is a tragic hero speaking in mellifluous Tagalog (instead of the foreign-accented Spanish and carefully “bad Tagalog” Simoun uses in public) of the need for revolution.
Beyond the visual and vocal templates offered by movies, a look at the novels themselves reveals the fact that Juan Crisostomo Ibarra/Simoun, for all his Basque ancestry over four generations, is the classic “brown mestizo” whose skin color—described as a “beautiful brown color”—ties him to his native country. Rizal’s brown mestizo will be subsequently reincarnated in Philippine literature in the form of Ninotchka Rosca’s Adrian Banyaga and F. Sionil Jose’s Juan Bacnang.
Pancho Magalona’s patch of gray hair at the temples simply won’t do, because Simoun is described as having long white hair (prematurely brought on by his tragedy and long years of suffering and wandering) and a sparse black beard. In our time, Roeder Camañag—white-haired, for a change—is memorable as Simoun in Gantimpala Theater’s production.
The current popular image of Simoun—memorialized in manga and other illustrations—as a Filipino incarnation of Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula (from Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Bram Stoker’s novel ), he of the tinted glasses and silk hat and English tailored suit, is intriguing except for one detail. The hat worn by Simoun, as described in the Fili, is neither silk hat nor bowler hat, but a pith helmet made of tinsin (matting rush, Juncus effusus; badili, susud, piñgot; tinsin is derived from the Chinese term deng xin).
Simoun’s “moreno” skin, combination of English and South American accents, and time spent in the United States and Cuba all lead Don Custodio to insist on labeling Simoun as an “American mulatto.” Mulato is derived from the Spanish word for “mule” (a cross between a horse and a donkey) and originally referred to the mestizo offspring of a union between a European and an African. First used as an official census category in the United States in 1850, “mulatto” encompasses a wide range of color gradations in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean, from lightened dark to darkened light to, simply, dark. Indeed, Simoun is variously called a Brown Cardinal and Black Eminence, and, aside from British Indian, is mistaken as well for Portuguese.
And then there’s Elias, described as having long, unkempt hair, an athletic build, large sad eyes, and compressed lips. Though possessed of striking looks, Elias has the ability to “disappear” into the crowd. Two civil guards looking for Elias are given the following description of the fugitive: “Height: tall, according to the alferez, medium according to Padre Damaso; color, brown; eyes, black; nose, ordinary; beard, none; hair, black”–a description so relative and general that it can apply to the majority of the native male population.
A master of disguises, Elias can change accents at will, and is able to move with ease between the towns under Spanish rule and the mountain and forest strongholds of the remontados (those who have turned their backs on colonialism).
While Ibarra basks in the love and (sometimes even obsessive) attention of Maria Clara, Elias does not have the luxury of a lovelife. It is telling that the one chapter Rizal chooses to excise from the Noli is the chapter on Salome, who is in love with Elias and whose offer of happy domesticity and family life Elias spurns because of his single-minded pursuit of the persons responsible for his family’s misfortunes. From hints in the novel, we learn that Elias is “attracted” (to use modern-day lingo) to Maria Clara, no doubt moved by Maria Clara’s going out of her way to talk to him and offer him food at the picnic when everyone else ignores the pilot as a mere hired hand.
As for Maria Clara, we know she is the literary prototype of the fair-skinned mestiza beauty. As a child, she had curly, almost blond hair, a telltale sign of her true parentage. Rather than his male protagonists, Rizal makes Maria Clara the true fulcrum of the Noli’s plot: it is out of love for her that Ibarra returns from Europe and offers the schoolhouse as a gift to her; it is out of love and concern for her that Padre Damaso works to undermine the Ibarra family; and it is out of lust for her that Padre Salvi hatches the false insurrection to implicate Crisostomo.
Because Maria Clara says that she has never seen a live buwaya (crocodile) before, Elias–who is fascinated by her and moved by her kindness to him–jumps into the lake to catch it, thereby initiating the chain of events that puts him in debt to Ibarra for saving his life and leads him to discover the truth concerning the entanglement of Ibarra’s family in his own family tragedy.
In the end, we give Simoun and Elias and Maria Clara and all the other characters in Rizal’s novels the visage and build and voice that we want to give them. We also read and re-read Rizal in the light of our own preoccupations and imperatives. This is what keeps Rizal relevant more than a century since his martyrdom. Historical topics have made a comeback in cinema and continue to be debated by scholars and students. What would Simoun and Elias and Maria Clara look like a century hence?