For a long time I had the vague feeling that José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, published in Berlin in 1887 (when he was twenty-six) and El Filibusterismo, out in Ghent in 1891 (he was then thirty), were almost too astonishing, not only in their technical narrative mastery, complex development of characters and linguistic richness, but because they were among the very first novels ever written by a Filipino. They offer a huge contrast with the sometimes charming amateurishness of the work of two generations of novelists in neighbouring Indonesia, before the 1950 arrival on the literary scene of Pramoedya Ananta Toer—more than half a century after Rizal’s execution by the Spanish colonial government of the Philippines.footnote1

For all its satirical brilliance and the synoptic picture it gives of late nineteenth-century colonial society, Noli Me Tangere can be said—up to a certain point—to be realist in style. A wealthy young mestizo, Crisóstomo Ibarra, returns to the Philippines after years of study in Europe, with the intention of marrying his childhood sweetheart Maria Clara and starting a modern secular school in his home town. By the end of the novel all these dreams are in ruins, thanks to the machinations of reactionary, lustful members of the religious orders, and to the corruption and incompetence of the colonial administration. Maria Clara retires to the nameless horrors of a convent, and Ibarra himself seems to have perished, gunned down by the regime after being framed by the friars for a revolutionary conspiracy.footnote2

The second novel is much stranger. The reader gradually discovers that Ibarra did not die—his noble alter ego, Elias, sacrificed his life to save him. After many years of wandering, principally in Cuba and Europe, and accumulating untold riches as a jewel-merchant, he returns to his homeland in the bizarre guise of Simoun, a gaunt figure with long white locks and deep blue spectacles which conceal the upper part of his face.footnote3 His aim is to corrupt an already corrupt regime still further, to the point at which an armed uprising will be catalysed that will destroy the colonial order and liberate Maria Clara. The climax of the narrative is a conspiracy to detonate a huge nitroglycerine bomb at a wedding party attended by the entire colonial elite. The plot, however, comes unstuck. Maria Clara is discovered to be already dead and Simoun himself, gravely wounded, dies on a lonely shore before he can be arrested. Nothing in ‘real’ Philippine history corresponds to Simoun and his conspiracy. One could perhaps think of the novel as proleptic fiction, set in a time as yet to come—although no other Filipino would write ‘the future’ like this for more than a century. What possessed Rizal to write the sequel in such a peculiar way? From this point of view at least, El Filibusterismo was a much more enigmatic book than its predecessor.

The puzzlement remained, until two unrelated accidents occurred which sent me off on a chain of discoveries. One was a note from my brother, which arrived just as my book, The Spectre of Comparisons, was going to press. The other was a paper sent to me by a young Filipino scholar. What follows—a preliminary investigation of the intercalation of fiction and politics in the brief life of José Rizal, in the context of the Parisian avant-garde, nationalist insurrection in Cuba and the rise of anarchism in Latin Europe during the 1880s and 1890s—are the first fruits of that quest. Part One is devoted to Rizal’s fiction, particularly its connexions with Joris-Karl Huysmans’s famously ‘decadent’ 1885 bombshell À Rebours. Part Two, to follow, considers how this fiction was shaped not only by the political activities of the Filipino student colony in Spain but by the experience of Cuba from the mid-nineteenth century; by the aftermath of the Commune; and by the rise in anarchist circles of terroristic ‘Propaganda by the Deed’. Part Three will investigate the ‘afterlife’ of Rizal and his work, following his execution at the age of thirty five, on 30 December 1896, by a dying colonial regime.

The title, Spectre of Comparisons, was adopted out of admiration for a brilliant phrase in Noli Me Tangere—‘el demonio de las comparaciones’—evoking the young Ibarra’s experience on seeing the seedy Jardin Botánico of Manila and perversely finding himself imagining in his mind’s eye the grand botanical gardens he has visited in Europe.footnote4 Or still better: Rizal writing, in Paris and Berlin, about a young man ‘yonder’ (allá) in Manila, who is thinking about . . . allá, Paris and Berlin.footnote5 What I had not then noticed was the real peculiarity of this phrase in the context of the novel. Noli Me Tangere is full of witty expressions, but there is no other spooky and unsatirical phrase like this.