I approached El Filibusterismo knowing that it and Noli Me Tangere’s publication was the legal justification for the judicial execution of the author by the Spanish government. Incidentally the site of the execution was a ten minute walk from my apartment in Barcelona. I’d previously read Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination for my Global Histories course at NYU and was fascinated by the life of the author. After being so close to his execution site and having seen his former student residence while exploring the streets of Madrid, I decided that after I returned to the States I would finally read it. After having read it, all I can say is that it is possible that due to the working up of it in my mind of the novel that it wasn’t able to fulfill the expectations that I had of it. I wouldn’t say that it is bad, but more so that its emphasis of the political level tended to overwhelm the aesthetic dimensions of the novel, which while present aren’t given the same sort of attention. In stating this I know that I am not alone, as surely the Spanish government must have felt this way as well and am aware that this has much to do with Rizal’s changes in the urgency of the need for political change in the Philippines.
El Filibusterismo picks up the general narrative development from where Noli Me Tangere left it 13 years later and in such a way that the one misses little not for having read the first one. All we need know, and this is illustrated in the book, is that the innocent love of Ibarra has turned into a obsessive hatred against the Spanish colonial government. Rather than plan an outright guerilla rebellion himself, he seeks to pit foes against one another, defrauds the colonial powers and later attempts but fails to bomb a number of the government functionaries.
Some of the novel’s greatest prose comes from Ibarra, who in his new guise goes by the name of Simoun, when he describes to Basilo his rationale and plans for attack, and the conversations amongst the priests and students. The attempt by the students to use their own rhetoric of universal human brotherhood and various legal proclamations against the friars is met with the sophism that devolves into naked power games. The numerous Philippine youths that are attempt to play a positive role in the direction of their country are one by one put in a situation that forces them to kill themselves, be killed by the army or self-emasculate themselves to save their lives and futures.
Rizal’s criticisms of the colonial friarocracy are devastating. The educational system is shown to be a not only a farce but a true barrier to the proper education of it’s pupils, native women are sexually preyed upon by the friars – who are constantly trying to increase the extracted amount of forced labor or goods from the population. The image of the populations poverty and impossibility of upward mobility or peace due to these friars is indeed serious and Rizal shows that though there are bureaucrats that are willing to side with justice, with the natives, they are placed in a situation that to do so openly is conceived by the power apparatus as to be a traitor and cause for dismissal and immediate exit from the country. The flip side of this is the constant production of rebels, such as Cabesang Tales and the group of bandits that he soon turns more political, that must be continually fought against. Spanish colonialism is constantly shown to be a cancer on the native people. Despite all of this, Rizal manages to intersperse enough comedic phrases that it is not all moribund and depressing for the reader.
Humorous comments alight on the peculiarities of the Chinese living the Philipines, the intellectualism of the friars that is sizable only in this colonial provinces and shrinks to nothing once moved to the cities of Europe, the near autocratic powers of friars that have in many respects the same sociopathy of children and many more.
One of the jokes that I found particularly amusing occurred when a group of Friars decides to go visit a fair. Amongst the carved goods of people typical to the area is a statue of a one-eyed, disheveled woman holding an iron with puffs of steam coming out of it. What is the carving of this woman supposed to represent? The Philippine press.
As a novel which praises suffering for a righteous cause in the face of a greater force than oneself, in it’s criticisms of Spanish rule, documentation of the immorality of the friars and call for action towards a national renewal that will eventually lead to their expulsion by any means necessary El Filibusterismo makes a political tract into a narrative. While to be sure it has it’s moments of description rather than narration, to use a literary distinction coined by Georg Lukacs, it is as the whole telling the story of the Fillipino, their enemies and hinting towards means to get them out. While Rizal doesn’t present a character in the book that it meant to substitute for his particular beliefs, but having so many characters in there that repent then prevalent political tendencies, ideas and showing their interrelation he is able to present a compelling piece of historical literature.