Dying for a Dream

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Many writers have places, real or imagined, linked with their names – Joyce’s Dublin, Hardy’s Wessex, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha – but I don’t know of any who have a province named after them, other than José Rizal, the Filipino author of Noli Me Tangere. The province of Rizal was created in 1901 (two years after the country was ceded to America by Spain), to honour the best-known martyr of Philippine nationalism. It stretches from the Laguna de Bay, the largest lake in the country, to the edge of Manila, the city my father moved to in the 1960s.

I followed as a migrant teenager from Ceylon, beginning to dream of writing but uninterested in history or national heroes. So my first encounter with Rizal’s name was not on a page but in a car, driving through Rizal province to the Antipolo hills which look down on the city that had become my home.

In today’s world, Manila may not seem so surreal, but in 1960s Asia the mix of a Spanish colonial heritage and American materialism was startling. The city had a distinctly Hispanic air to it, especially in the houses of the better-off, combined with more than a hint of the Wild West. American English was spoken in the malls, Spanish in the drawing-rooms. There was still a serious debate about what should be the national language, Spanish having been eclipsed by English and Tagalog. Society ladies in embroidered finery sipped coffee from elegant china, and not so far away American GIs on R&R from the war in Vietnam roamed the streets looking for hostess clubs and massage parlours. There was no other place quite like it, real or imagined.

A hundred years earlier, when the Philippines were still ruled by Spain, José Rizal was startled by Manila for very different reasons. He came to the city from his home town of Calamba to study at Ateneo, a prestigious Jesuit school and university. His family was well-to-do and educated. His mother recited Tagalog poetry and read Castilian prose. Rizal studied hard and did well academically, but by the time he graduated he had started to see the city, and the country, as oppressed by the colonial system. At the age of 21, seeking freedom from the friars, he set sail for Europe: the go-to destination then, before California took its place. In free-thinking Europe, he discovered a cosmopolitan world of exiles and artists, independence movements and political idealism. There too he began his first novel, Noli Me Tangere. Written deliberately, even provocatively, in Spanish, it was published in Germany in 1887, at his own expense, in the hope of awakening his countrymen. It is arguably the first significant anti-colonial novel by an Asian author. Rizal was then 25 and his book would change both the political future of his country and his own future.

Rizal’s subversive book generated political agitation, so when he returned to the Philippines he found himself suspected of treason. He left again for Europe where he wrote h

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About the contributor

Romesh Gunesekera is the author of the Booker-shortlisted novel Reef. He has written eight books of fiction including The Match, partly set in the Philippines, and most recently Noontide Toll.

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