John D. Nery, Revolutionary Spirit: Jose Rizal in Southeast Asia.

With a foreword by F. Sionil Jose.

Singapore: ISEAS, 2011. Pp. xxx, 280; chronology of Rizal’s life, appendices, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Rommel A. Curaming.

Why a book of this kind was long in coming–and what shape it assumed when it finally came–says much about the sociology of intellectuals and scholars in the region and also about the fields of Rizal and Southeast Asian Studies. It bespeaks the changing landscape of the field, which sees the increasing participation of Southeast Asians in the study of their own region. Long separated by various factors, including colonial experiences and the nature of conventional area studies, countries in the region tend to be treated separately, and their study to be dominated by non-Southeast Asian scholars and driven by themes reflective of what outsiders need or wish. As the first full-length book seriously to examine Rizal from a Southeast Asian transnational or regional perspective, John Nery’s Revolutionary Spirit opens up possibilities for exploring various facets of the shared history of Maritime Southeast that have long lain buried under a heavy mass of national and colonial narratives. Written as it was by a journalist who dared to take on some of the “big names” in Rizal and Southeast Asian Studies, it might herald an era that sees serious journalism contributing more significantly to the otherwise academic-dominated fields of Philippine and Southeast Asian Studies.

Nery’s book may be divided into two main parts, with distinct characteristics and seemingly with different (or confused) audiences in mind. The first part of Revolutionary Spirit consists of its first three chapters, preceded by a thoughtful preface and a long and useful introduction. It centers on the author’s effort to correct several “errors” concerning Rizal. These are factual and interpretative lapses that, the author suggests, have had the effect of downplaying or negating Rizal’s revolutionary credentials. Among these is Benedict Anderson’s mistake in thinking that Rizal’s 1887 novel Noli Me Tangere was written after Rizal’s involvement with La Solidaridad, the newspaper published by the similarly named organization of mostly Filipino reformists in Spain. A similar mistake, Nery notes, was made by none other than Apolinario Mabini. He regards this error as instructive, attributable to the conflation of the distinguishable phases of Rizal’s long years in Europe. It is not clear how this conflation helps set the “inevitability trap” (p. 5) which, in my view, Nery rightly claims to be common among observers of Rizal: “The sweeping arc of Rizal’s biography creates its own momentum, (giving) even his difficult decisions the air of the inevitable” (p. 5). Nery worries, justifiably, that this tendency “strips Rizal’s courageous sacrifice . . . of its full meaning” (p. 27).

Revolutionary Spirit goes on to cite and straighten out a number of other errors. Nery notes and corrects small, strictly factual errors (which he calls “unfortunate errors,” p. 6) committed by such prominent scholars as Teodoro Agoncillo and Zeus Salazar. For example, Salazar claimed that Rizal decided to annotate Antonio de Morga’s 1609 work Sucesos de las islas Filipinas in 1889, whereas Rizal was in fact already done with the task by the end of 1888.

More importantly, Nery examines in detail the “pernicious error” (pp. 20-27)–an error in interpretation–that the Spanish man of letters Miguel de Unanumo committed in his assessment of Rizal. He regrets Unanumo’s view that Rizal was no more than a “dreamer,” a “hero of thought and not of action” (p. 23). Nery’s supposition that Unamuno’s view has been shared by many in the Philippines and beyond leads him to offer an extended examination and rebuttal of the view. He considers it essential to reiterate the “revolutionary spirit” that Rizal represented and unleashed. In doing so, he positions himself against the many other Filipino intellectuals who strongly believe that Rizal was anything but revolutionary..

Readers unfamiliar with the age-old debates on Rizal might wonder if Nery complains too much. Elements of the long-standing disputes–on whether Rizal was a “conscious hero,” an idealist or a realist, “merely” reformist or in fact revolutionary–resonate in these pages. The treatment makes one wonder if there is not a better way to frame a study of Rizal’s place in Southeast Asia. Might the framework implicit in Mike de Leon’s illuminating film “Bayaning Third World” (“Third World Hero,” 2000), which posits that the ways in which various individuals or groups appropriate Rizal reflect their own interests, not serve the purpose more effectively?

In my mind, then, the real value of Revolutionary Spirit lies in its second part, the seven chapters in which Nery carefully traces Rizal’s possible influences on Philippines’ neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia and, if to a lesser extent, vice versa. Developing further the theme of the “Malay turn” first raised in his opening chapter, Nery demonstrates in these later chapters that, notwithstanding the colonial divide, there was a flow of ideas between the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies. (The beginning of a flow of ideas between the Philippines and Malaya/Malaysia would have to wait until later.) He synthesizes a wide range of secondary as well as primary sources, written originally in a range of languages and unfamiliar to readers versed only in the study of single Maritime Southeast Asian countries.

For those long accustomed to the writings of and on Rizal, for example, it may prove refreshing to have more details about his fascination with Multatuli’s–or rather Eduard Douwes Dekker’s–1860 novel Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company and about its possible influence on him. They will find stimulating Nery’s treatment of the coverage of Rizal’s execution and the Philippine revolution in the Netherlands and the Netherlands East Indies. He offers an equally fertile account of how E. F. E. Douwes Dekker–the grandnephew of Multatuli and one of Indonesian nationalism’s prime movers–“discovered” and was possibly influenced by Rizal’s work.

Nery also devotes an entire chapter of Revolutionary Spirit to the fascinating reminiscences of Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and the Philippine revolution offered in the Minangkabau-born Comintern agent and Indonesian nationalist Tan Malaka’s autobiography, Dari Penjara ke Penjara (From Prison to Prison). In the narrative scheme of Nery’s book, a connecting line might be drawn among the admiring views of E. F. E. Douwes Dekker, Tan Malaka, and other Indonesians during the Japanese period and the subsequent successful revolution against Dutch colonial rule. Of particular interest is Rosihan Anwar’s translation of “Mi ├║ltimo adios,” the poem that Rizal composed on the eve of his 1896 execution. Nery credits this translation and Rosihan Anwar’s discussion of it on the radio in 1944-1945 with a possible role in enhancing nationalist sentiments among Indonesians.

The efforts in Revolutionary Spirit to demonstrate the links between Rizal and the Indonesian revolution peak in Chapters 7 and 8. Nery there offers evidence drawn from published as well as hitherto underutilized sources, such as interviews with Rosihan Anwar and his recollections in the essays published in 1961 and 1997,* newspaper articles, and Sukarno’s speeches. Nery ought to be commended for parsimony of interpretation: he is careful not to exaggerate the links that his evidence illustrates.

One could well argue that this evidence is sparse and that the links were at best tenuous. Be that as it may, one real value of Nery’s work lies in stimulating questions that it raises about the modes and extent of intra-regional interaction during the late colonial period, from the turn of the twentieth century to the eve of the Japanese occupation. Nery has done the fields of Rizal and Southeast Asian historical studies a service by opening pathways for younger scholars of Southeast Asia to explore in their own work.

In two succeeding chapters, Revolutionary Spirit investigates how Rizal figured in work of the circles centered on the late Syed Hussein Alatas in Malaysia and Singapore and on Indonesia’s Pramoedya Ananta Toer, respectively. As in the five preceding chapters, there is much in these two chapters that long-time students or scholars of Rizal, Alatas, and Pramoedya will find fresh and illuminating. The synopsis of Alatas’s chapter on Rizal in his 1977 classic The Myth of the Lazy Native is spot on. So is Nery’s critique of that chapter, in which he points out Alatas’s failure to grasp the weight that Rizal rightly gave to the three centuries of cultural conditioning under the Spaniard in his conceptualisation of indolence. Nery correctly points out that the parallels drawn by Alatas between British soldiers’ non-cooperation with the Japanese during the three years of war and the Filipinos’ experience for three centuries under Spain is at best misplaced.

Revolutionary Spirit almost certainly represents the very first time that Rizal, Pramoedya, and Alatas–three major Southeast Asian intellectuals, from three different countries–have been discussed together at length. That it is a journalist who has dared to undertake this discussion speaks volumes about the persistent–but now gradually eroding parochialism–of Southeast Asian area studies.

Each of the appendices to Nery’s book–a short essay on José Rizal’s letters, a critique of Renato Constantino’s view of Rizal, and a discussion of Rosihan Anwar’s translation of “Mi Ultimo Adi├│s” accompanined by the text of that translation –is useful in reinforcing to a particular point, an argument, or an issue raised in the text of the book. Of the three, Nerys’s critique of Constantino stands out for its penetrating exposition of the problems in Constantino’s arguments about the lack of a strong basis for the widespread and persistent veneration of Rizal. While there has been no dearth of effective rebuttals of Constantino’s views since their publication in 1969, Nery’s critique is as refreshing as it is incisive.

Aware of the lingering divide between journalism and scholarship, John Nery apologizes perhaps more than he needs to for venturing into the areas that Revolutionary Spirit traverses. Free of the itch of academic specialization, and at the same time protected by the disclaimer that he is “just” a journalist, he has produced in a year or so a work that any “academic” Southeast Asianist might be hard pressed to accomplish. His book’s crisp, at times lyrical, and often punchy writing style ensures that Revolutionary Spirit will reach, and will be appreciated by, a wide audience.

Rommel A. Curaming is Coordinator, Southeast Asian Studies Programme, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, where he also serves as a lecturer in history.

*Rosihan Anwar, “Rizal’s Name in Indonesia,” in Proceedings of the International Congress on Rizal, 4-8 December 1961 (Manila: Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission, 1961) and “Reminiscences of the Indonesian Press during the Revolution, 1945-1949,” in Taufik Abdullah, ed., The Heartbeat of Indonesian Revolution (Jakarta: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 1997).