Postscript to Rizal@150

Ambeth R. Ocampo

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WAITING for execution is not the best of times, even more so for the victim. Days before a bullet in the back snuffed out his life in the crisp morning air of December 30, 1896, Jose Rizal distracted himself in his prison cell in Fort Santiago by scribbling. Where are these papers that he wrote while in captivity? Nobody knows.

During his last meeting with his mother and sisters, he pointed to a small alcohol stove on his desk and whispered to one of his sisters in English, so that the jail guards would not understand, “There is something inside.” Rizal hid his untitled valedictory poem, known to us today as Mi Ultimo Adios in that cocinilla. The manuscript was folded so neatly that his sisters had to coax it out later using their hairpins.

On the eve of his execution in December 1896, Rizal stuffed papers into his coat and pants; he hid more in his shoes, assuming all these would be discovered after his corpse was turned over to his grieving family, but the Spanish colonial government would not risk public veneration of the “Martyr of Bagumbayan.” Like Osama bin Laden who was allegedly dumped in the sea, Rizal was dumped in an unmarked grave in Paco cemetery. Exhumed almost two years later, the papers he carried to the grave had already deteriorated. What did these papers contain? Nobody knows.

One would think that a century and a half since his birth and having been dissected, debated and discussed in many books and academic conferences, we will have exhausted all there is on Rizal. The truth of the matter is that there is quite a lot out there that we may never know of.

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Like modern-day cam-whores the teenage Rizal took off his shirt and drew a self portrait the original of which was lost or destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945.

Some twenty-five years ago, I entered the Philippine National Archives for the first time, scanned the catalog, and requested to see documents relative to Jose Rizal. While waiting for the bundle to arrive, one of the researchers came up to me and in a most condescending tone declared,  “Gasgas na yan! Ano pa ba ang maidadagdag mo? Naisulat nang lahat ukol kay Rizal.” My youthful enthusiasm for research was doused with a bucket of cold water from someone who openly bragged about knowing “everything” in the National Archives. My self-esteem may have been momentarily deflated but pricking my pride made me decide to stay. When the Rizal bundle arrived, I untied the string and opened the thick Manila paper wrapping to find a small stack of documents with a note on top from pre-war National Library Director James Alexander Robertson. The note stated that all the Rizal-related material in this file was transferred from the National Archives to the National Library! There was nothing by Rizal in the bundle, but there was a lot on Rizal in it, especially the hitherto unknown and unpublished correspondence of Rizal’s sisters. My journey of a thousand miles began with that first step. From that day on, Rizal became my career.

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Prudishness affected documentary editing of Rizal, his drawing of a farting man was unpublished for a long time. His medical notebooks have been transcribed and translated but the anatomical drawings were all left out.

Having studied Rizal for more than half of my life, I realize that there are some gaps in our knowledge and wish these may be filled by the discovery of new material. The last major find were the Spanish drafts of a third novel after Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891). While in Hongkong in 1892, Rizal began a novel in Tagalog, but gave up and started again in Spanish. These drafts were inaccessible in the vault of the National Library. Worse, they were ignored because they were mislabeled as the borrador or drafts of the Noli. Correcting a simple cataloguing error led to the revision of the Rizal canon that now accepts Makamisa as his third unfinished novel.

Around the same time as Makamisa was being written, Rizal’s elder brother Paciano is said to have translated the Noli from the original Spanish into Tagalog. Rizal corrected this himself making it the definitive Tagalog translation. Paciano’s grandchildren think the manuscript translation could have been one of the many papers in Paciano’s lakeside home in Los Baños. Where is this today? Nobody knows.

In Dapitan, Rizal wrote a treatise on folk beliefs and the mangkukulam entitled La Curacion de los hechizadosor “The Cure of the Bewtiched.” There are references to other investigations towards a history of Philippine medicine; one of them is his study on the Malay “sakit latar” or the “mali-mali” of the Filipinos. Where is this today? Nobody knows.

My interest in Rizal’s women led me to references in two entries to the pre-war Jose Rizal biography contest that saw print: Great Malayan by Carlos Quirino and Biografia de Rizal by Rafael Palma. Quirino consulted the letters of the Englishwoman, Gertrude Beckett, in the National Library, and even quoted passages from them. These letters are not extant anymore. Palma, in a footnote, says there were letters in French from the Belgian, Suzanne Jacoby, to Rizal in the National Library. Similarly, these letters are gone, and together with the Beckett letters are believed to be part of the casualties of the Battle for Manila in 1945 that saw the destruction of much of the city, including the National Library. The question is why these letters weren’t included in Teodoro M. Kalaw’s prewar compilation of Rizal’s correspondene, the five-volume work in six books, known to scholars as the Epistolario Rizalino, the primary source from where studies, journal articles, lectures and books are drawn. Why were the Beckett and Jacoby letters left out? Is it because these letters were considered insignificant? Too personal? Too graphic for public consumption? We know the Epistolario is incomplete. Where are the missing letters? Again, nobody knows.

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Rizal wrote his student memoirs under the pseudonym P. Jacinto but got carried away towards the end and signed his name.

I wrongly thought that I would get my life back after June 19, 2011. I planned to use the next decade and a half to retire and reinvent my life by exploring a new area of historical research, but Rizal continues to remain. With the slim chance of more long lost manuscripts coming to light, we can still mine the 25-volume Escritos de Rizal series published by the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission in 1961 that was dutifully reprinted in 2011 to mark Rizal@150. This primary source has to be updated: transcriptions and translations re-checked for accuracy; new material added; a comprehensive and analytical index compiled for improved cross reference; etc. Improved documentary editing will hopefully result in new works and new viewpoints.

Re-reading all the material compiled on Rizal is like playing connect-the-dots: there will come a point when you can glean the complete picture even if there are still some gaps or missing dots. Will we ever know Rizal fully? We only know what he wanted us to know. We will never know what papers he hid or destroyed, or what papers are just waiting to be found. After all, a historian can only be certain about his doubts.

Rizal remains as one of the most documented Philippine heroes, and it is unfortunate that while he wrote a lot for a nation, its people do not read his works. Indeed, our knowing and unknowing of Rizal and all that he has written will keep our national hero current, even for the next 150 years.