Jorge Mojarro

IT is well-known that José Rizal was, unavoidably, an avid reader. He explains in some of his letters how he preferred to spend his money on books rather than food. His curiosity was more typical of an humanist from Renaissance times that of a middle-class man from 19th-century Calamba. There was no topic that was of no interest for him: ancient languages, medicine, anthropology, history, religion, etc. His mind was in a permanent state of effervescence, always willing to be fed with new intellectual stimuli.

Rizal accepted with superb serenity his martyrdom, but he was not certainly looking for immortality through his unfair execution, but through his writings. I have argued elsewhere that the genius of Noli Me Tangere did not come from, let’s say, divine inspiration, but from a life devoted to books, especially literature of fiction.

The topic of an impossible love between two beautiful souls, both of impeccable moral standards, was very common in 19th-century Latin American novels. The most well-known among those was María (1867) by the Colombian Jorge Isaacs, a novel so successful that it has obtained more than 200 editions until the present. We do not have any evidence of Rizal reading Latin American novels, but ultimately, the most relevant issue here is that the Spanish-speaking intellectual class shared the same worldview and very similar political and artistic concerns.

Nínay (1885) by Pedro Paterno, a Filipino novel that certainly needs more credit, was surely an influence on Rizal, who probably did the proofreading before going to print. What in Nínay is a lachrymose romance between two lovers in a very idealized and exoticized Philippines, peppered with adventurous scenes and information regarding local customs, Rizal transformed into a literary masterpiece where all social classes are mercilessly criticized. The parallelisms between Nínay and María Clara, Carlos Mabagsic and Crisóstomo Ibarra are quite evident, but more relevant even is the parallelism between two original, enigmatic and very likeable characters: Berto and Elías.

But who was the most popular, most read and most prestigious novelist in Madrid in the second half of the 19th century? Benito Pérez Galdós, whose life is being commemorated this year in Spain as he passed away exactly 100 years ago. And certainly, Galdós must have been a major literary influence on José Rizal. Galdós was born in the Canary Islands and moved to Madrid at 19 years old in search of literary glory. His career began when he was allowed to publish his first pieces in the most important newspapers. He published more than 80 novels, 20 dramas, plus several travel books, essays and a collection of his pieces as a journalist. Most importantly, he was a staunch anticlerical novelist, and priests are generally given a very negative role in all his novels. With the exception of Miguel de Cervantes, there is no novelist like Galdós in Spanish literature; his novels keep being read until today and some of them have even become popular movies. Belonging to the realist trend, there is something in the plots and characters of Galdós that still appeal pleasantly to the readers of today.

Rizal, who was in Madrid while Galdós was in the summit of his literary career and was extremely updated in literary novelties, should have read some of his works. Moreover, there is a novel by Galdós whose plot reflects somehow one of the problems pointed out by Rizal in Noli Me Tangere: the dramatic and persistent interference of priests in extra-religious issues. The novel is titled Doña Perfecta (1876), and the plot is as follows: a marriage of convenience is arranged by Doña Perfecta between her daughter Rosario and her cousin, Pepe Rey, in order to keep the properties of the family united. What was supposed to be a cold relationship led by mutual interest becomes unexpectedly a passionate true love. However, the priest, Inocencio, had better plans for Rosario: to marry his nephew. Doña Perfecta, a devoted believer, accepts the plan of the priest against the will of the two lovers, and a tragedy ensues. It seems that this Inocencio could very well have served as an inspiration to Rizal to create his evil Padre Dámaso. It wouldn’t be difficult for us to imagine Rizal reading the novel while thinking about his mother country and its problems.

The fact that Rizal found inspiration in many books is not an accusation of a lack of originality, not at all, but an acknowledgment of his creative impetus. Reading the most popular novelists of his century, he was able to create something completely new and perfectly shaped to the situation of the Philippines. More importantly, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that Noli Me Tangere came to be a masterpiece superior to the previous novels that may have inspired it.