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Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Rizal in Saga: A Life for Student Fans’ by Nick Joaquin

by Bryan Meniado

I recently attended a writing class with Write Things PH and historian Ambeth Ocampo, author of Rizal Without the Overcoat, on the eve of Jose Rizal’s 161st birth anniversary. In that session, we discussed writing about the past and how to make history more meaningful for everyone, especially for younger generations. It was a treat listening to enriching stories and insights not only from Ambeth Ocampo, but also from my classmates who all made history come alive in class. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: The ‘Looking Back’ Series by Ambeth Ocampo”)

But one of the things that has stuck with me the most from Ambeth Ocampo’s talks and books is his reflection on how Rizal, one of the most documented and revered among the national heroes, “wrote a lot for a nation that does not read him.” Quite melancholic but also a challenging thought. While there are likely many Filipinos who read Rizal, ‘not often, not enough, not as meaningfully’ might just be true.

For this month’s WFSR, I’m sharing about Rizal in Saga: A Life for Student Fans by Nick Joaquin, a novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, biographer, author, and National Artist for Literature. First published in 1996, the new edition, released by Milflores Publishing in 2021, is introduced and annotated by Ambeth Ocampo in an effort to bring Jose Rizal even closer to new student fans. If you want to know our national hero and the saga that was his life even better, then read on because here’s why Filipinos should read Rizal in Saga: A Life for Student Fans by Nick Joaquin. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Reportage on Lovers’ by Quijano de Manila”)

The new edition’s cover features Carlo S. Tanseco’s painting “Rizal Eye Chart–Solo Humano.” This edition also contains new photographs from various sources and are annotated by Ambeth Ocampo.

Rereading history 

The Filipino should be familiar with Rizal as he’s the most revered and remembered among our national heroes. After all, we build monuments in his honor in every town and city across the country, and we have annual commemoration of his birth and martyrdom. Furthermore, his seminal works Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo are required readings at school by virtue of the Rizal Law. 

Given that, Rizal is practically everywhere and is embedded in our everyday lives: his face is on the one-peso coin; every city or town has a street, avenue, or park named after him; and a myriad of businesses, big and small, bear his name. He has become so widespread yet also so invisible, which is what happens when something becomes too familiar. As Ambeth Ocampo puts it, it is one thing to see but another to notice, and I think Rizal is like that to many of us. 

Nick Joaquin’s Rizal in Saga reminded me of this. We tend to think that we know Rizal because we study him at school and we watch TV specials about him on Rizal Day. But if we think about it, do we really know Rizal without his overcoat? Do we know him beyond the textbook? Is Rizal still relevant to us beyond just a school topic? Why do we have to know Rizal in the first place? 

Rizal in Saga is an invitation for everyone to meet Rizal once again. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a student or otherwise because being a “student” should not only be confined within the formal school setting. On the same note, learning history and Rizal shouldn’t only be bounded within the context of an Araling Panlipunan or a Social Studies class. With the help of Nick Joaquin’s storytelling, I hope this book will entice Filipinos to read more Rizaliana because to know Rizal, one should read Rizal; and to know and understand our story as a people, we should read our history. 

Left: First edition of Rizal Without the Overcoat (1990). The book is celebrating its 32nd anniversary in print this year.

A different view of Rizal 

Prior to the release of the new edition, I had been on the hunt for my copy of Rizal in Saga but to no avail. It’s a rare find because it wasn’t commercially released, as limited copies were only given out as a souvenir for the centennial of Rizal’s martyrdom in 1996. Given its rarity, the first edition would be at a premium so even if I find one, I won’t be able to get a hold of it without draining my piggybank. 

It’s a boon that Milflores Publishing released the new edition and made it more accessible for new student fans. I’m delighted to have added this literary gem to my Rizaliana collection because Nick Joaquin’s artistry really makes history and Rizal come alive. As I was going through the chapters, it didn’t feel like I was reading a biography. It felt more like I was reading a novel. It’s a page-turner and would make you feel as if you didn’t know that Rizal would be later shot in Bagumbayan. It’s a light yet engrossing read. 

What I think makes this biography different from others is that it focuses more on the young Rizal than the hero Rizal that we know. More than half of the book details his youthful days in Calamba and Ateneo and Santo Tomas. This gives us a different view of Rizal where we learn more about: his formative and growing years; his relationship with his family and friends; his flaws and insecurities; and his hardships and frustrations. 

Going out of our comfort zone

While the majority of the chapters in the book are dedicated to Rizal’s younger years, it doesn’t mean that the later part of his life is inadequately represented. In fact, it is the opposite as Nick Joaquin weaves Rizal’s life story in such a way that you get to appreciate his transition and growth from his “Pepe” days in Calamba to his travels and awakening in Europe, that eventually led him to his martyrdom as Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero. Tragic as it may be, given that he only lived until thirty-five, Rizal seemed to have lived a full life considering everything he had done and achieved. 

My other takeaway from reading the second half of Rizal’s life is the importance of going outside of our comfort zones. Contrary to our perception of him as an intrepid go-getter that could do anything with no fear, Rizal also had his fair share of apprehension and insecurities—from his short stature and his failed romances to his family troubles and his anxieties on the future of his tinubuang lupa. 

Nevertheless, he still took on all the obstacles, did everything necessary, and gave everything he could for his aspirations. First, he left his aging parents and hometown Calamba to take his chances in Manila. After years of hard work, he eventually finished his studies at Ateneo and Santo Tomas. Then, when he and his brother Paciano realized they had exhausted all avenues for growth in their homeland, he went on to explore new frontiers in Europe and became a full-fledged Ilustrado. 

That may sound easy to read but it certainly was an arduous feat even for a man like Rizal. And those experiences and challenges undeniably had honed him to become, as Nick Joaquin calls him, “the grandest of Filipinos.” 

The importance of dissent 

When talking about Rizal, we can’t miss out on the question of why he chose to do all those things. Given his background, he could have easily lived a quiet middle-class life. He could have just helped his country by practicing medicine or agriculture. He could have gotten married, had children, and lived way beyond thirty-five. 

But as we know, Rizal was a man on a mission from the onset. With the confluence of his upbringing, his exposure, and realities at the time, he chose a much more difficult path because he saw beyond his personal circumstances and interests. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to all the injustices, corruption, and abuses, and knew that something should be done to change it. 

This is what I believe we Filipinos should be reminded of. We should be reminded that dissent and activism are safeguards from the possible infringement of our democratic rights. Dissent is not only for the sake of pagrereklamo and creating chaos, and being an activist doesn’t equate to being a terrorist. They are there to remind us that if we see something is not right, then we should acknowledge it, seek accountability, and act upon it. Just imagine if Rizal and our heroes had turned a blind eye and blindly followed, then we wouldn’t have had the liberties and privileges we enjoy today. 

Some Rizal biographies at the #BibiMangkiBookbed Library

Our capacity for greatness

Is Rizal still relevant to us beyond our Araling Panlipunan or Filipino classes? Why do we have to know Rizal the person and not just the hero? Why do we remember him? How should we remember him? 

Beside the obvious reasons, I think what we can pick from Rizal’s life is the realization that we too can be great. We can draw inspiration from the things he did and, more importantly, learn from his mistakes because, in contrast to our common depiction of him being extraordinary, Rizal was also flawed. 

Recognizing his shortcomings doesn’t make him less of a hero. Instead, it will help us realize that we are not that different from him. Knowing Rizal as a person and not only as a revered hero makes him more relatable and relevant in our lives. If you ever feel small, literally and figuratively, remember that Rizal was also ‘small’ but he still soared until he could no longer decry himself as little. No matter our smallness, we can do great things if we will it. 




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