At 7 am on December 30, 1896, a 35-year-old ophthalmologist, bound at the elbows with four bayonets pointed at his back, walked onto the killing field in a military compound just outside the walled city of Manila. Hours earlier, in a detention cell, he had penned 14 melancholy yet triumphant stanzas, “Mi Ultimo Adios,” exalting God and motherland—the Philippines. He hid the poem inside a lamp, later remitted to his family among his other worldly possessions. In the morning before the last day of the year, the eye doctor met his execution squad.
There is an arresting painting on display at Intramuros, Manila’s historic district, that renders the scene: a thin, anguished young man in suit and tie, shrouded in gun smoke that also evokes clouds in the firmament. The martyr is suspended in a state of improbable motion, lifted heavenward from his feet as his bowler hat tumbles to the ground—and also, he is twisting. Yes, it is said that José Rizal, in a last act of defiance against the Spanish Empire, turned around after being shot in the back to face his executioners. With his final breath, he channeled the parting words of Jesus Christ: Consummatum est. It is finished. He died with his face turned up toward the morning sun. So the story goes.
Rizal’s martyrdom is at the heart of the foundational myth of the Philippine republic. Born to a well-connected Filipino family, he belonged to a globe-trotting subset of the Philippines’ late-19th-century intelligentsia known as the ilustrados, upwardly mobile young men who were critical of the Philippines’ status as a colony of Spain. They wrote articles and satirical pamphlets skewering the clergy who reigned over the islands at a critical time when Spain’s grip on its colonies, including Puerto Rico and Cuba, was slipping, and revolutionary feeling was heating up all over the archipelago. While their work was scathing, their demands were modest: The ilustrados did not call for independence from Spain; they called for its incorporation in Spain as a province, and for equality for Filipinos under the law.
By the time of Rizal’s arrest and trial in 1896, an armed revolution led by pro-independence forces was already underway. Rizal wanted none of it. In fact, he had been en route to Cuba when his arrest was ordered on charges of inciting the rebellion that had taken the country by storm. Back in Manila, he was subjected to what was, then as now, widely understood as a sham trial: The state, rushing toward a conviction, presented shoddy evidence linking Rizal to subversive associations that had organized the masses and taken up arms for the revolution. In reality, Rizal had few direct ties to those organizations. Nonetheless, he was swiftly given a death sentence.
So what did Rizal do to draw the ire of the state, to be convicted in this kangaroo court, despite the fact that even some high-ranking colonial officials at the time had publicly attested that Rizal had no involvement in the uprisings? Even stranger, why were the revolutionaries, beyond the walls of the Spanish fort where he was being held, using Rizal’s name in their rallying cries for a war that Rizal himself had long since disavowed? Anyone who knows anything about José Rizal will give you one reason: The man wrote a novel.
“The Philippines seems unique in its enduring yet insolubly mediated relation to its seminal book,” Gina Apostol writes in the author’s note to the new edition of The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, a masterful work of historical fiction set in the country on the cusp of a revolt that would end nearly four centuries of Spanish colonial rule. “The notion of the Philippines, in a sense, was produced by a novel,” she argues. Apostol is talking about José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (“Touch me not” in Latin, known simply as “The Noli” to Filipinos), written in Spanish and published in Germany in 1887. A romance and tragicomic satire, the novel tells the story of wealthy Crisóstomo Ibarra, who, on returning to his native country after years of studying in Europe, quickly learns of the political corruption and abuse that has overtaken his childhood home like a sickness. At every turn, Ibarra’s well-meaning but naive attempts to improve upon the situation, such as building a school, are thwarted. “I will lift the veil hiding your ills, and sacrifice everything to truth,” Rizal wrote in the novel’s dedication, “To My Country.” The novel is still required reading for schoolchildren in the Philippines, and this is precisely the book that falls into the titular character’s hands halfway through Apostol’s text. “The world was new when I was done,” Raymundo Mata says of The Noli.
Raymundo Mata offers a decidedly different and more complex portrait of Rizal than the Christlike ones you’ll find in the national museums. The main narrative is a gnarled bildungsroman told through the eyes of Mata, a hapless young man proximal to the upper-middle-class ilustrados who unwittingly plays a “cameo role” in some storied episodes in Philippine history, including the formation of the Katipunan, the underground society that led the people to armed revolt against Spain.
The reader is quickly introduced to Raymundo Mata’s metafictional conceit: The book is drawn from a recently unearthed manuscript, a mess of papers found hastily stuffed into a medical bag and penned by Mata in the decades leading up to the Philippine Revolution of 1896. It has been hammered into its current form out of a chaotic Babel of languages by the translator Mimi C. Magsalin, and is currently being edited by the academics Estrella Espejo and Diwata Drake. The three women breathe life to the novel through their relentless annotations as Mata’s manuscript is passed around between them.
Espejo, a historian, is writing from her sickbed in a sanatorium in Leyte. Drake, a “bottle blonde” Filipino American from the Midwest, chimes in from various far-flung locales as she travels to conferences, offering bad psychoanalytic readings of Mata’s story that earn Espejo’s constant derision. At times, Mata’s narrative gets completely overrun by the editors’ lengthy and often combative footnotes; they butt heads, quarreling over translation choices and weighing in on Philippine historical debates. When Mata, recalling his childhood, speaks of “the load in my cannon,” Espejo contends that he is referring poetically to the Cavite Mutiny of 1872, an early instance of rebellion that inspired a generation of many would-be revolutionaries, including the ilustrados. Drake counters that he is merely talking about taking a shit. “Is that what they teach you in—where are you from?—Kasilyas, Arkansas?” Espejo responds in the next annotation. (“Kasilyas” means “toilet” in Tagalog.)
The first half of Apostol’s novel is dominated by the three present-day characters’ spirited interjections in the annotations, but they fall away about halfway through, when Mata’s story starts to pick up speed. Mata’s former Latin teacher, Father Gaspar, hands him a book, which the priest says sickened him. The reader is made to understand that this is a crucial moment, a turning point. “Shhh… Do not disturb! Let us read in quiet,” Drake says to the others in the footnotes. “Momentous times are coming up.” Indeed, Mata reads the book the Spanish priest had criticized as blasphemous, and he says the sheer force of The Noli struck him like a thunderbolt.
The publication of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere registered as a shock to the colonial system. The stewards of empire in Spain’s Pacific stronghold saw it as a threat that could break the already tenuous threads still legitimizing the clergy’s reign over the colony. It was immediately banned in the Philippines, but copies trickled in as the authorities’ morbid curiosity got the better of them, scrambling to get their hands on the book while denouncing it as heretical in the same breath. Tracking Mata’s movements through the city, Raymundo Mata imagines turn-of-the-century Manila in the thrall of growing revolutionary fervor as samizdat copies of Rizal’s novel change hands, its contents discussed through word of mouth in public spaces, its political utility debated by revolutionaries in backroom meetings.
Rizal’s novel crystallized the feeling of widespread discontent and launched him to superstar status in his home country. Andrés Bonifacio, the Philippines’ working-class hero and leader of the Katipunan, who also appears as a character in Raymundo Mata, reportedly had a copy of it in his collections and is widely known to have idolized Rizal. In Apostol’s novel, Mata is himself inducted into the Katipunan’s ranks and sent on a special mission to Dapitan in the southern Philippines, where Rizal was exiled in 1892, to seek out the novelist’s counsel and blessings for the organization on the eve of revolution.
The emotional center of Apostol’s novel is this encounter between the impressionable young Mata and the hero whose work had spurred both the country’s transformation and his own. But upon arriving at Rizal’s estate, Mata is confronted with an off-kilter image: a stately but meandering town doctor who seems a bit bored. He appears to have spent most of his time in exile farming and constructing a plumbing system. Mata is unimpressed. “I don’t know how I imagined him—on some lofty cloud scribbling phantom masterpieces at a desk?” Later, when Mata’s Katipunan coconspirator approaches Rizal under the moonlight, asking him to cosign the impending war, Mata looks on from a distance and can only just make out the doctor’s noncommittal mumblings. “Precautions,” he says. “Horror.” The Katipunan agitators leave Dapitan not with the hero-writer’s blood oath to the revolution but with an ophthalmologist’s prescription for potassium iodide.
Apostol’s novel unravels the layers of irony and contradiction that must be ignored or obfuscated in order for Rizal, as the martyr symbol for the birth of the Philippine nation, to achieve coherence. The story of Rizal, in other words, is that of a novelist whose work outstripped the man who produced it. He lives on in historical memory as the national hero for a national project that Rizal himself did not believe in, and which remains to this day largely emergent, a rumor in the Pacific. Its fractures are inscribed into the geography itself: “What was the point?” Mata asks in the throes of disillusion, weighing the merits of a revolution that would go on without the endorsement of the figure who inspired it. “To retrieve the illusion of wholeness for this random and sinking archipelago, this patchwork of bamboo-and-coconut planets speaking idly and in tongues?”
The Philippines, born kicking and screaming out of protracted anticolonial struggle, is a saga dotted with disappointments, compromises, and sellouts. Betrayal is the “emblematic wound” of Philippine history, according to Drake, in Raymundo Mata’s footnotes. Still, despite its critical impulse, Apostol’s novel is far from a bitter takedown of Rizal: The three women who occupy the novel’s footnotes, working through this hitherto undiscovered historical artifact together, take their roles as bearers and witnesses of history seriously, and ultimately seem to derive great pleasure from being able to battle over the finer points of historiography. For Apostol, the portraits and statues commemorating flawed heroes need not be taken down—they just have to be painstakingly annotated. History comes alive in the footnotes.