MANILA, Philippines—It is unfortunate that the novels of Jose Rizal are read in the confines of a classroom rather than the comfort of an easy chair or a hammock on a beach. Nobody brings “Noli me tangere” or “El Filibusterismo” to read on holiday except students cramming for an exam. Studying Rizal should conclude in an appreciation of his life and works, but all this has turned into a boring chore.
The vicious cycle begins in high school when the novels are first taken up in Filipino class. Naturally, nobody reads Rizal in the original Spanish, so students are introduced to the novels in Filipino and in abridged form. In college, the novels are supposed to be read whole and in the fine translations by Soledad Lacson Locsin (English) and Virgilio S. Almario (Filipino), but students return to their high school textbooks, turn to chapter summaries from the Internet or the “komiks” [comic book] versions to comply with minimum course requirements.
I remember my own experience with Rizal’s novels. We first read these in high school Filipino literature class under a teacher who was named, believe it or not, Pedro San Pedro. I liked both the class and the teacher. I remember the story of both novels. I recall the symbolism of the crocodile in the fish pen, which was said to be rapacious Spain and Spaniards feeding on the Philippines and the Filipinos. Today, Kim Atienza and National Geographic will tell you that crocodiles are not on a murderous feeding frenzy all the time. As a matter of fact they eat intelligently. Next time you use buwaya or crocodile to describe someone in government, think twice and be kind to animals who get branded negatively.
Now that I’m much older and I have read the novels a number of times, I wonder whether there is a hidden or symbolic meaning in the crocodile in the fish pen. If Rizal were alive he might even scold us for over-reading and tell us that it is just a crocodile, nothing more.
In college, I liked my Rizal course lectures but hated the exams that required us to memorize all the data in the novels and the teacher’s lectures. Sometimes I wondered if tests were meant to scare us into reading the novels. I ended up reading the komiks version and supplemented this with the guide questions from my high school textbook.
Today, as a teacher, I feel so bad that my students are now cramming for their Noli-Fili test and will probably have bad memories of these wonderful novels. Maybe the Rizal course is counter-productive. I reflected on my lectures during my last two decades of teaching after I received this e-mail from a student:
“I was in the middle of finishing El Fili, which I think is 10 times better than Noli, and felt like expressing my thoughts. First, I wanted to tell you that I COMPLETELY agree with you! Reading Noli and Fili is SO much better the second time around. Given that we studied it in Filipino in high school, I barely understood the story. The English version by Soledad something is SO much better!
“Second, I am sort of scared, well, truthfully, REALLY scared, of your Noli-Fili test tomorrow. I feel like I’m unprepared or something. Do we need to know about Rizal’s life? Or is the test restricted to the novels? I read the novels, but it seemed like it was for pleasure more than anything else, so I am not too keen on the details. Can you give me some tips?”
I replied that if you read the novels as is required by law and by the course, then that had value in itself, and the test was secondary. If the student started being bored with the novels but ended up enjoying them, that was the intent of the law. Republic Act 1425 is quite specific about providing copies of Rizal’s novels, but this has not been complied with. Section 2 of the law states:
“It shall be obligatory on all schools, colleges and universities to keep in their libraries an adequate number of copies of the original and expurgated editions of ‘Noli Me Tangere’ and ‘El Filibusterismo,’ as well as Rizal’s other works and biography. The said unexpurgated editions of ‘Noli Me Tangere’ and ‘El Filibusterismo’ or their translations in English as well as other writings of Rizal shall be included in the list of approved books for required reading in all public or private schools, colleges and universities.
“The Board of National Education shall determine the adequacy of the number of books, depending upon the enrollment of the school, college or university.”
If you go to school libraries today, will you find enough copies on the shelves to serve the school population? What was the intent of the law? To make copies available for free for every student? Just enough for reference? Section 3 provides a clear answer:
“The Board of National education shall cause the translation of ‘Noli Me Tangere’ and ‘El Filibusterismo,’ as well as other writings of Jose Rizal into English, Tagalog and the principal Philippine dialects; cause them to be printed in cheap, popular editions; and cause them to be distributed, free of charge, to persons desiring to read them, through the Purok organizations and the Barrio Councils throughout the country.”
During the centennial of Rizal’s birth in 1961, the novels were translated into all the major Philippine languages. If the books are available for free, where and how do you get them? Can I go to a “barangay” [village council] hall and get copies? Will making the novels available make people read them? That is another story.