When I picked up a novel with a stunning title like Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not) (Filipino, 1887), I expected to encounter a work dredged in corporeal, visceral experience and language. I wanted a novel centered on the function of touch: human interaction, physicality, phenomenology, flesh. I didn’t get this in Jose Rizal’s incredible text, but I didn’t really feel disappointed in not getting what I wanted — because in some ways I received a more meaningful gift.
Having read Pilipino literature before and not walking away fully satisfied, I struggled to understand fiction from this very underrepresented country. Rizal’s novel put Pilipino literature on the map for me as a force of exemplary fiction. Rizal absolutely ATTACKS…well…everything in this work. In fact, I have rarely seen such blatant and unapologetic interrogation of major social and cultural institutions in a work of fiction. In Touch, Rizal problematizes it all: medicine, religion and clergy, government, love, education. There are some moments that had me holding my breath because what Rizal suggests is so unfathomable, so dark, that I couldn’t actually believe I was reading it. For example, the clergy’s treatment of the two poor brothers was — in a word — unnamable. I gulped down tears and felt truly angered by the possibility that Rizal was writing from what he knew in the Philippines. I want to be clear here: I nearly vomited. There was so much disgusting insinuation in this novel that I couldn’t close my eyes to it: Rizal paints a picture that you hate seeing but that you cannot pull your eyes from.
The novel has a power that I haven’t encountered a long time. That power doesn’t rest with the narrative style (which vacillates strangely and ineffectively). It also, for me, doesn’t originate from its hero, Ibarra. Ibarra is a weak hero who struggles to stand for anything much. The narrator is actually the hero of Rizal’s tale, and perhaps Maria Clara who refuses to participate when she doesn’t believe in the institution (such as marriage without love). The relationship between Ibarra and Maria Clara was the triumph of the novel, and I liked that it never comes to fruition. Unlike so many of the issues Rizal brings to the table, the love story is not problematized as a disgusting enterprise. It is criticized, instead, as an impossible one.
One reason that the love seems so impossible because, despite the title of this novel, TOUCH is missing from the pages of this fiction. The institutions seem untouchable; yet, so do the characters — and not in a theoretical way: in a physical way. There is no (appropriate, loving) touching here. I craved that. With so much violence, I longed for it more than anything else in Rizal’s piece. But he is relentless and unkind; he won’t allow that kind of touching. And by doing so, he touched me.