The Museum of Doctor Rizal

21 May

Manila is not a spiritual city. It’s one of those big, dirty, urban sprawls, expanding organically, growing without control, the beating heart of an archipelago, maybe, but a cancered one at that.

12 million? 15 million? Honestly, who’s counting?

Manila long ago outgrew its natural ties to earth: the river and the Bay. Before its roadways are completed, they are already too narrow for its needs.

High-rise condos with names like Knightsbridge and Gramercy spring up cheek-by-jowl with squatter camps where families fresh from the countryside learn that, unless you’re educated, connected, local and (most often) lucky, the streets of the big city are paved with shit, not gold. Volunteer fire brigades wail down canyons of mouldering concrete to fires that can burn for days.

It’s a maze. A consumerist maze. From the delis to the junkfood to the sari sari store.

Emo ergo sum.

But if the city has a soul – and I’m not sure my own city does — I guess it flits and murmurs through the mirrored shadows of the Rizal Museum, in Fort Santiago, the old colonial core.

It took us a while to get to this. Our third visit to the city. With only a couple of days to spare before departure. But I’m glad we did.

Doctor Jose Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines. There’s a road or ten named after him in every city. His works are prescribed reading in every Filipino school. And his name’s come up throughout our time here, in conversations with gangsters and academics, with tricycle drivers and artists.

His status, I guess, is not dissimilar to Simon Bolivar in Venezuela. Although, this being the Philippines, the cult is even more extreme.

And, when I say cult, I do mean cult. Rizal died at 33. The same age, they say, as Jesus. And one of the archipelago’s more novel sects, the Rizalists, worship him alongside the original Christ.

Rizal spoke seven European languages, plus Tagalog, the dominant language of his native islands, plus two or three other Philippine dialects. He was a sculptor. Ophthalmologist. Poet. Novelist. Philosopher. Political thinker.

One of the founding fathers of Filipino independence. A member of geographical societies and archaeological societies. And, in the mélange that makes up the islands, he was a Spanish speaker of Chinese descent.

And to see the cell in which he spent his final hours, composing the farewell poem that many consider his masterwork, is genuinely moving.

Rizal was shot by firing squad in the grounds of Fort Santiago, the great colonial slab which the Spaniards set up on the curve of the Pasig River, on the remnants of an older Malay fort. As occupations turned, Spanish torture gave way to Japanese, and now the place is a shrine. Not just to Rizal. But to the Filipinos and Americans who died in the drowning cells that flooded at high tide during the Second World War.

The museum is small, but elegant. Some of his little sculptures sit, gallerised behind glass with lines from his many writings. There are reminiscences of his final days. Extracts from his biographies. Etchings, sculptures, portraits of the man.

I guess the most moving element of the story is that the revolution he died for was a revolution he never wanted. He felt it premature. Events showed it was.

But he refused to run. And, for that refusal, died. So much like a character in his novel, the Noli, that some, not just the Rizalists, believed he prefigured his own fate.

If you’re in Manila, go see it. It’s one of the most worthwhile things to see.

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3 Responses to “The Museum of Doctor Rizal”

  1. jessiev May 21, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    wow – very cool. i am not sure i’d ever get to manila (for many of the reasons you’ve just mentioned) but THAT sounds like an incredible thing to see.

    • MummyT May 23, 2010 at 2:12 am #

      I actually really like Manila. Like is, I guess, the wrong word. But it’s a sort of twisted fondness for the place. It’s very special. I guess what should have come through somewhere in that post is a sense of awe for the city, in all its dirt… But, yes, it’s definitely an acquired taste.

  2. nicole curry May 23, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    Sounds interesting I had never heard of Rizal…now I want to learn more…thx

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