Who is Jose Rizal beyond history books, and why should we continue to listen to him today? Veteran journalist John Nery answers this question no less than 55 times in “Radical: Readings in Rizal and History” (San Anselmo Press, 2023, 222 pages), a collection of newspaper columns, speeches and lectures written over close to two decades. An Inquirer columnist from 2008 to 2020, Nery considers our national hero a crucial lens from which to view both our history and society. He offers timeless themes one gleans from a close study of Rizal and history: preserving and increasing our heritage, imagining a better Philippines and internalizing the truth that “it takes all kinds of heroes” to make a nation.
Why devote one’s scholarship to one who is already the Filipino most written about by historians, playwrights, even telenovela writers? Because “Radical” shines intellectual light on a specific place between the academic and the biographic, between Rizal’s historical significance and his personal narrative. We already know why Rizal is important: Here, we see and feel what was important to him.
Did you know Rizal left behind several hundred letters? Much of “Radical” is anchored on Rizal’s correspondence, and it begins with “The 10 most important letters Rizal wrote”—those Nery believes explain Rizal best. There is Pepe’s letter to his brother Paciano about the printing of “Noli Me Tangere” (“It will be the object of much discussion”); the rare one in Tagalog to the women of Malolos (“I wondered if a woman of courage was a common thing in our country”); and “A los Filipinos,” written in the anticipation of a death sentence upon returning to the Philippines (“I wish to show those who deny us patriotism that we know how to die for our duty and our convictions”).
These are especially moving in light of what we already know happened to Rizal. But what makes this collection particularly poignant is the foreword by former Sen. Leila de Lima, written from her detention cell. ”Rizal’s letter writing resonates deeply with me,” she muses. “It is a lifeline, a source of empowerment and thus, as Rizal said, ‘detenido pero no preso.’” Detained but not imprisoned—what could be more striking than its reenactment in our own times, heard in the same book?
“Radical” aims to give us an understanding of the true Rizal and help us apply the lessons from him to our circumstances today—“a more history-based approach to national questions.” Nery has ably volunteered to be a medium through which Rizal’s spirit can continue to illumine, instruct and inspire. His painstaking research, insightful analysis and clear, sedate prose brings out the brilliance of Rizal with a jeweler’s unerring eye and sure hand. For the thinking—and caring—Filipino, “Radical” is a gem.
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