Book Review: A Swiss Myth’s Pinoy incarnation

It is an unfamiliar bond, but the largely hidden one between the Philippines and Switzerland is being celebrated anew. The Philippine national hero paid a compliment to the, albeit mythical, Swiss one. Now the compliment has been returned with a prize-winning novel by a Swiss about the Philippine hero.

Jose Rizal is primarily remembered as the fount of modern Philippine – indeed, wider Malay – nationalism. Though not an active revolutionary himself, his execution for alleged rebellion at the hands of his Spanish overlords spurred the revolution to expel Spain. The revolution was then hijacked by the US and Rizal’s name was later hijacked by the likes of Ferdinand Marcos and the Catholic church.

Yet even without his role as the father of independence, Rizal deserves to be known as much for his extraordinary literary and intellectual talents. His novels Noli Me Tangere and Il Filibusterismo are widely known, if insufficiently read these days. But much less known is his translation into Tagalog of Wilhelm Tell, the last and perhaps most famous work of the great 19th century poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller. It showed not merely Rizal mastery of German, a language he learned after Tagalog, Spanish and English, but required him to create new words and phrases in Tagalog to express modern European political and philosophical ideas which had no equivalent in the languages of the Philippines.

Now the Swiss German writer Annette Hug has taken the Tell theme as the basis for a novel about Rizal, a fictionalized treatment of his life entitled Wilhelm Tell in Manila.

The plot is set mostly in Leipzig and Heidelberg, a Germany where Rizal has fled from the oppressive atmosphere in Madrid. The university of this German town was at the time (and now) arguably one of the world’s most prestigious institutes of learning, comparably maybe with today’s Harvard. Here the ophthalmologist practices his skills, drinks beer with students, learns German and translates Wilhelm Tell into Tagalog as Guillermo Tell. Rizal joins a fraternity, flirts with waitresses and makes with his new friends extended tours in city’s hinterland.

The original 1804 play was itself a subversive work of political propaganda. An expression of German romantic idealism, it is the story dating to the 15th century or earlier, of the struggle for freedom of Swiss mountain people against an aristocratic Austrian overlord that culminates in the murder of the tyrant. Through the Philippine version of the Swiss independence myth, we not only get insight into Rizal’s struggle with a literary work and himself, but also a refreshingly new interpretation of Schiller’s play itself.

Hug, who in the 1990s studied at the University of the Philippines and is a fluent Tagalog speaker, engages in a kind of literary reverse engineering. She takes, step by step, an apparently familiar text but at the same time following the self-discovering process Rizal went through when struggling to adapt Schiller’s story and ideas to a Filipino context.

There is no real continuing narrative in the novel. It resembles more a broken mirror that reflects different stations in the intellectual and political search of an intellectual migrant who is only in his mid-20s. There is an inner logic in this method. Translation cannot be a mechanical process, as it might be for translating Spanish into English. Rizal writes for an audience that cannot imagine many of the central elements of the setting and plot. There for example are no Tagalog equivalents to many of the German words.

How can he explain to people living in the Philippines 150 years ago icy glaciers and avalanches? Rizal resorts to lagunas and floods. How should he translate “Reichsunmittelbar”- a form of self-rule in the context of the Holy Roman Empire that some of the Swiss valleys enjoyed and the Philippine islands of the time were far away from it? And should he make Gessler the Landvogt –bailiff – simply the tax collector or maybe better the Gubierno, the Spanish governor? The choice is politically that more explosive and risky for himself since Tell at the end kills Gessler, a hint the colonial authorities in Rizal’s native land could not overlook.

As an illuminating aside it should be mentioned here how ideas of all kinds can be projected into literary classics. Whereas Rizal found in Schiller’s Tell freedom from the Austrian oppressor, the Austrian born Adolph Hitler when still a young and poor man saw in Tell’s struggle the fight of a pure blooded man – as no doubt he saw himself - who rebelled against a decadent elite. Not surprisingly then that after Hitler rose to power in 1933 Wilhelm Tell was the most staged play in the first years of Nazi rule. But it was quietly dropped of the repertoire after a 22 year old Swiss, Maurice Bavaud, tried in 1938 to assassinate Hitler.

Rizal the translator not only had to make Schiller’s drama understandable in adapting it to a tropical and colonial context. At the same time he had to protect himself by making the text incomprehensible to the Spanish friars who learned and used only the simple verb forms of Tagalog.

The process of translation for Rizal becomes also an excursion into the work of the late 18th, early 19the century German polymath Wilhelm von Humboldt who in his essay “Study of the Kawi language” came to the conclusion that among the Malay languages the verb had thrived in Tagalog in its richest variations. Shortly after reading this, Rizal wrote to his brother Paciano that the Tagalog verb was “a work of art.”

“He was confirmed in his belief that Tagalog grammar had to be completely rewritten, disregarding any link to the Spanish textbooks,” writes Hug, who in 2016 was awarded the Swiss Literary Prize for Wilhelm Tell in Manila. Maybe this profound cultural rebellion cost Rizal more than his political writings, his life, as Hug suggests. Rizal wrote to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt – a German-speaking teacher and writer from what is now the Czech Republic – that a people could liberate itself from its weakness through rediscovering its own language.

Rizal’s nationalism but lack of political radicalism made him useful in the eyes of the American successors of the Spaniards. There is more than irony in that in 1912 the new overlords of the Philippines erected a bronze monument at the same place where he was executed only 17 years earlier. The sculpture by the way was made by none other than the Swiss artist Richard Kissling, whose monument to Tell stands in Altdorf, the very same place in the heart of Switzerland where the mythical hero confronted Gessler several hundred years earlier.