Noli Me Tangere (literally, Touch Me Not, the resurrected Christ’s admonition to Mary Magdalene) is Jose Rizal’s first novel that depicted Philippine conditions under the Spanish colonial regime. Fresh from his studies in Europe, young Crisostomo Ibarra returns to his hometown of San Diego, eager to introduce reforms such as a modern school after those he had seen in his sojourn abroad. He is met with fierce resistance from the friars, including one who lusted after Maria Clara, his childhood sweetheart. Looking after his father’s grave, Ibarra is told that his father’s remains had been unearthed upon the order of the parish priest and dumped into the lake. Elias, member of a company of outlaws who had escaped persecution by the government seeks Ibarra’s help in their cause, but Ibarra maintains his faith in instituting reforms through education and non-violent means. Ibarra is finally blamed as leader of a failed uprising, but he escapes through the help of Elias who sacrifices himself in a chase across the lake.
This novel may pass for romance were it not for its savage portrayal of the friars, which amounted to blasphemy in nineteenth century Philippines. It tells the tragic story of Sisa and her children, one of whom dies in the hands of the sacristan mayor, falsely accused and flogged for thieving; Sisa would lose her mind while Basilio, the surviving son, would escape into the woods. Rizal goes on further to deplore the ignorance and superstition of the masses as among the roots of Philippine evils. Knowing that his ideas would be taken for those of a subversive, Rizal puts his words in the mouth of the village eccentric, known as Filosopo Tasyo, whom the townspeople take for a fool, but to whom Ibarra comes for advice. Other characters represent a cross-section of Philippine society: Dona Victorina, a typical social climber who abhors her indio origin; Kapitan Tiyago, a landowner who kowtows to the authorities in exchange for privileges, and whose wife gives birth to Maria Clara, sired by the Franciscan friar Padre Damaso; Sisa’s gambler of a husband; the school teacher whom Ibarra hires for his school project. Maria Clara is presumed to represent the Filipina maiden, but in my view, she is too naive and emotional; she retires to a convent upon hearing that Ibarra is dead. Sisa and her son Basilio are fated to meet on Christmas eve, but she dies upon recognizing her son. Elias appears, fatally wounded. Sending Basilio away, he makes his dying plea to his countrymen not to forget those who died without seeing the dawn. A bit melodramatic, but it had a powerful message, sufficient as such to rattle the Spanish government. Its sequel, the shorter but more incendiary El Filibusterismo
, would ultimately pave the way to a revolution.