In Rizal in Saga, reissued just in time for the 125th anniversary of his martyrdom, Nick Joaquin describes Jose Rizal as ‘either a half-baked egoist, full-time hallucinatory, or nostalgia nut.’ But was he a mystical seer?
When Jose Rizal found the Pigafetta files in the Italian original at the British Museum in London in 1888, his first impulse was to write to his friend Marcelo del Pilar in Madrid.
“I have here Italian manuscripts that deal with the first coming of the Spaniards in the Philippines. They are written by a companion of Magellan,” wrote Rizal of the Italian scholar, explorer, and diarist Antonio Pigafetta’s account of the arrival of what was left of Ferdinand Magellan’s flotilla of ships on the islands that would later be named after Spain’s King Philip II—the Philippines.
With urgency, emphasizing he would do it himself, if not for his numerous chores, Rizal entreated Marcelo del Pilar to have the Filipinos in Madrid translate the Italian manuscript into Spanish or Tagalog, so “that it may be known how we were before 1521.” Del Pilar balked, “But no one here knows Italian,” to which, casually, apparently unaware of how exceptional his knack for languages was, Rizal replied that the Italian language could be learned in a month.
At the moment, Rizal was looking back, trying to see anything in the past that would justify or enable what he dreamed of in the future, which, in the context of his time, was really about respect, dignity, and equality or, at the very least, against the injustices and abuses of the Spaniards.
In his time, there was no such thing as nation. The Philippines, if at all, was only a province of Spain or, more accurately, a ward of Spain. In the poem A la Juventud Filipina, which Rizal wrote in 1879, when he was 18 years old, as an entry to a poetry contest held at the Artistico Literator de Manila, for which he won a silver, the top prize for a mestizo or indegina (the gold was reserved for Spaniards), the line “Bella esperanza de la Patria mia (fair hope of my nation)” got him into trouble. For Filipinos back then, “whether Spanish, Chinese, or indigene blood, there was only one nation: la Madre España,” as national artist for literature Nick Joaquin wrote in the biography Rizal in Saga, which has been reissued by Milflores Publishing late last year, just in time for the 125th anniversary of Rizal’s martyrdom.
So yes, despite his many flirtations with women, from Segunda Katigbak to Josephine Bracken, Rizal never really indulged in the present.
He was always in the past. His nose would be buried in the books of Alexandre Dumas, Moliere, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Virgil, Horace, Cicero… His eyes would be wide open on those rare occasions his father, Francisco Mercado, veering away from his mother Teodora Alonso’s after-supper stories from the bible, in the sala of their bahay na bato in Calamba, would tell him, his brother Paciano, and his nine sisters epic tales about Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, and Roland of the Twelve Peers.
Or Rizal was always in the future or in some world beyond where he was. On the shore of Laguna de Ba’i, “gazing on the horizon,” as Nick Joaquin wrote, the boy he was “would wonder if the ‘countries’ on the other side of the lake were happier.”
I predicted, interpreting one of her dreams, that she would be released in three months, a prophecy which by some coincidence came true. —Rizal on his mother’s discharge from prison
Wherever he was, Rizal was neither here nor there. He could be among the blooms of Intramuros but really he would be lost in the gardens of Europe, like his Noli me Tangere protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra in an epiphany he enigmatically worded as el demonio de las comparaciones.
In Rizal in Saga, the idea that Rizal might have had a sense of the future was recurring in many chapters. In 1878, he wrote in his journal Memorias de un Estudiante de Manila about the “great development in me of patriotic sentiments,” prompting Nick Joaquin to observe: “That a 17-year-old should feel self-conscious enough to write his autobiography seems both funny and fearful. He is either a half-baked egoist, full-time hallucinatory, or nostalgia nut. Or is he actually history in a hurry? Has he suffered intimations of immortality? There are hints that the journalist is a seer.”
But Rizal, even as a child, had said much of the future that, as history is now witness, proved to be true. Once in the nipa hut their father built in the orchard as their playhouse, his sisters found the boy molding clay into a bust of Bonaparte that pretty much resembled himself. “He thinks he’s Bonaparte,” they giddily whispered among themselves, loud enough for their brother to hear, only to hear him retort, to their astonishment, “Go on, laugh, but when I die, see if they don’t erect monuments in my honor.”
As it turned out, such pronouncements were far from strange, let alone isolated, from the Mercado sisters’ little brother. In his teens, as he entered puberty, Rizal became such a voracious eater that, shocked, wondering how such a small boy could eat so much, the sisters had to ask, “Why do you eat as if every meal was for your entire lifetime?” “Because I will have a short lifetime,” snapped Rizal.
In 1880, while at Ateneo, Rizal at 19 wrote a one-act zarzuela, Junto al Pasig, on the request of the Jesuits. The musical play was controversial for many reasons, including glorifying the pre-Hispanic past, as well as the native deities, and demonizing Spain, but it was also prophetic. “This is Rizal the prophet speaking, as if uncannily envisioning the revolution, the Spanish-American War, and the American grabbing of the islands to be followed in a few decades by the gruesome Jap invasion,” wrote Joaquin in Rizal in Saga, citing another passage—And from the proud mountain’s lofty / Summit shall I hurl down / A river of boiling lava / That, wrapped in smoke and devouring / Flame, shall raze whole towns—as a premonition of the lahar plague that would so grip the country.
In his travel diaries, Rizal also wrote that, as Joaquin shared, “before exams in first-year medicine, he had dreamed that certain questions were asked there—and when he took the actual exams those dream questions were indeed asked!”
At the end of the year 1882, while he was in Madrid, Rizal had a weird nightmare. On Jan. 1, 1883, he recorded in his journal that he dreamed he died two days before, meaning on Dec. 30, the day on which, 14 years later, in 1896, he would be executed at Luneta.
But years before he dreamed of his death, Rizal first dreamed of country. It might have been inspired by his own advice to fellow Filipino expatriates in Europe, to whom he once said, “Instead of aspiring to be a Spanish province, aspire to be a nation,” but, at some point, he did say, “I have seen the future and it’s national.”
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