Rizal’s Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo describe conditions in the Philippines in the twilight of the Spanish regime, no doubt with a bit of exaggeration because it was a propaganda piece intended to make the authorities sit up and do something.
The titles were carefully chosen. Noli me tangere was Christ’s admonition to María Magdalena, the first phrase of, “Touch me not, for I am not ascended to the Father.” The unmistakable implication was that time was not right for revolution. El Filibusterismo means subversion and the sequel indeed describes attempts to undermine and overthrow the regime.
Characters of the two books are linked by a reliquary, a gold locket. The precious object’s journey is the subject of a painting by Gromyko Semper of Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija.
The characters and their tragedies
Crisostomo Ibarra is the hero of both novels and Basilio, the sacristan who survived brutal punishment in Noli is also in Fili, a medical student. María Clara, Ibarra’s sweetheart, is in Fili as well, a nun in the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara, along with her stalker Padre Salví, who got himself assigned there as her confessor.
Crisostomo Ibarra is an idealistic reformer framed as a rebel by Padre Salví. Eluding arrest, Ibarra was thought dead, but in fact was able to escape into exile. With Ibarra gone and rather than be forced into a loveless marriage, María Clara enters the monastery.
Ibarra returns 13 years later as the wealthy and influential jeweler Simoún seeking to rescue María Clara and to undermine and overthrow the regime. He does so by corrupting officials, blocking reform, and fomenting popular discontent to set the stage for revolution while selling treasures like Cleopatra’s necklace and Marie Antoinette’s diamonds.
Basilio and Julí, the beautiful and sheltered daughter of Cabesang Tales, fall in love. Prospects dim when friars claim Tales’ lands. He files suit but loses at every turn. Making matters worse, Tales is kidnapped by outlaws. With no other recourse, the delicate Julí borrows ransom money from an old woman and in payment becomes her servant. Bent on revenge, Capitan Tales kills his land’s usurpers and himself becomes an outlaw. Basilio ransoms Julí but is implicated in a student protest movement and is arrested. Julí seeks a friar’s help for Basilio’s release but leaps to her death from a convent window to avoid rape. Another friar defrauds Basilio of a promised inheritance. Till then a loyalist, Basilio joins Simoún.
Simoún plans an uprising but learns of María Clara’s death, “… she had sought peace and had perhaps found suffering, where she had entered pure and without stain and died a broken flower.” Distraught, Simoún hesitated and the uprising was aborted. He plans a second attempt starting with the massacre of leaders of government, church, and business from the Governor-General down, who were all expected at a high society wedding reception. A lamp with nitroglycerin was to trigger explosions that would blow everyone up. Basilio unintentionally betrays Simoún’s plan, however, and all was lost.
The relicario’s journey
The relicario, glittering with diamonds and emeralds, was a gift of Capitan Tiago to his daughter María Clara. One festive evening, María Clara encounters a leper and, moved to pity, takes off the jewel and drops it in the leper’s begging basket.
Years later, Basilio cures the leper who then presses the relicario to his savior in gratitude. Basilio in turn gives it to his beloved Julí. The jewel could have saved Julí and her father from penury, but she chose to be a servant rather than sell Basilio’s gift. Simoún arrives to tempt the town elite with his fabulous jewels and seeks lodging at Cabesang Tales’ home. By dawn Tales is gone with Simoún’s revolver, leaving the relicario in payment.
His carefully laid plans gone to naught and exposed, Simoún seeks refuge with a sympathetic Filipino priest. As the Guardia Civíl approach, the subversive drinks poison, confesses, and dies. The priest heaves Simoún’s chests of jewels, with them the relicario, down a cliff into the ocean where protected by mermaids, they are perhaps fated to remain until subversion flames to revolution.
In its journey, the reliquary—a holy relic encased within a worldly shell—was given as expressions of compassion and gratitude; treasured in loyalty and faithfulness; relinquished as an instrument of fairness and justice; and finally consigned to the deep with the hope of recovery when the proper time comes.
Note: (a) The artist is the internationally known Gromyko Semper of Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija. He does masterful drawings in pen and ink and mixed media paintings on canvas, in this case using ink, acrylic, and distemper underpainting and an overpainting of oil, his own “recipe of the old master technique of the Renaissance”; and(b) The quote is from Jose P. Rizal, translated by Leon Ma. Guerrero, El Filibusterismo (Manila: Guerrero Publishing, 1996).
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Illustration: “The Relicario of María Clara” by Gromyko Semper, mixed media on canvas, 2020. The scene shows the relicario in the leper’s basket, just after it was dropped by María Clara; the little sacristan Basilio; and the avenging Simoún. In the distance are María Clara praying and her stalker Padre Salvi. Julí is about to enter, her saya just visible through an open window. A fiesta pagoda makes its slow progress down the river, past Capitan Tiago the opium addict limping by. Cabesang Tales is already in his mountain hideout.