It is difficult to speak about the Noli. Like many others I studied the Filipino version in high school, and a year ago I read the English one for history class. This marks my third reading of the quintessential Philippine novel, which admittedly I would not have undertaken if not for class (not for any shortcomings on its part, but simply because I believe that no book is worth reading thrice). Having read the Soledad Lacson-Locsin translation twice (borrowed from Stevie), I have to say that while it is not bad, I still prefer the Filipino version. The latter is incomparably better, perhaps because it is closer to both the author’s original Spanish and to the reader’s Filipino sensibilities. But setting translation issues aside, the text evinces Rizal’s fresh handling of form. He structures his narrative mostly through dialogue and behind-the-scenes movement, which leads to him opening several chapters in medias res. In terms of craft, it is also fascinating to note how he arms his novel with sharp satire and biting, half-concealed irony (to the point of wit) through his characters’ words.
The Noli presents a wealth of clear character images (reinforced by years of discussion in classrooms) that remarkably do not confuse despite their number. Admittedly some are presented too clearly at the risk of stereotypization; and yet as a reader I could not help but hope with them through their difficulties, even though I knew all too well their terrible, inevitable fates. This is especially true of Sisa and her sons, whose story never fails to incite pathos in me. Rizal succeeds in making readers identify with his characters, and we could not help but feel sympathy for those embroiled in such an oppressive system of religious politics and fear-driven complicity. This is exactly what constitutes the novel’s vision. Rizal’s works are about the individual rising against an institution without room for justice, as typified in the struggles of Ibarra and the schoolteacher, amongst others. But in the first book this vision shows mostly through the words of Elias and Tasyo only, since as of its end Ibarra remains a relatively weak character. From here the anticipation of transformation propels us toward the second volume, for as we all know, while the Noli is about shaping Ibarra, El Fili concerns what happens afterwards.
If you who read this have loved, you will understand; if not, it is useless for me to tell you; the profane cannot comprehend these mysteries.
To a query of love by a glance, brilliant or veiled, the word has no answer…
Man, the creation, is contingent and not necessary, and this God should not have created him, no, if to make one happy he must condemn hundreds to eternal damnation…
The people do not complain because they have no voice; do not move because they are lethargic, and you say that they do not suffer, because you have not seen their hearts bleed.
It is not courage, it is reckless temerity, to struggle alone against the existing order… To bend down when a bullet whistles by your side is not cowardice.
…in life it is not the criminals who arouse the hatred of others, but the men who are honest.
If God could not be just he could not be God.
To keep silent is to give assent to what happened.
We give more attention to an eventual evil than to a necessary good.
Do you, Sir, also believe in the necessary evil? Do you believe that in order to do good it is necessary to do evil?
Because they did us a great good, would we be guilty if we prevented them from doing evil?
Is it more humane to accompany a criminal to the gallows, than to accompany him along the difficult path which leads from vice to virtue?
Children and old women are the representatives of curiosity on earth; the former by their eagerness to learn; the latter by their zeal to remember.
Mamamatay akong di nakikita ang bukang-liwayway ng kalayaan sa aking bayan. Kayong mga makakakita, batiin n’yo siya at pagpugayan! Huwag n’yo lamang kalilimutan ang mga nabuwal sa dilim ng gabi!