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Noli and El Fili: The Original Manuscripts

Xiao Chua and I have been Facebook friends for almost a year, but we never had the chance to meet in person, that’s until he thought of the perfect idea. Mr. Chua is one of the most popular historians in the country, and he knew about my fascination with Jose Rizal, my literary idol. So, he organized a private tour of Intramuros, the National Museum, and the National Library of the Philippines. It would be my first time to visit the National Library, and I was very excited because I knew that the original manuscripts of the Noli and El Fili are kept there. They’re Jose Rizal’s most important works of literature which changed the course of my country’s history.

I asked him if he could talk to his friends at the National Library and inquire if they could allow me to take a glimpse of the vault where the manuscripts are kept. He said that he wasn’t sure if it was possible because some parts of the building were being renovated, but he promised to try.

The original manuscript of Noli Me Tangere

The day came and we went straight to the National Library, it was our first stop. To say the least, I was very excited. The moment I drove through the gates, I couldn’t help but look up and admire the building that houses Rizal’s original manuscripts. I felt so lucky, I couldn’t speak. Mr. Chua and I stepped out of the car and I noticed how tight the security was. It was hot and humid, but we were asked to wait for a good five minutes outside the building as the security personnel made a call to confirm our appointment. That was when Mr. Chua said that I would only be allowed to stand inside the room next to where they kept the vault containing the original manuscripts. I was super excited! It was enough for me to be that close to the vault. But, of course, Mr. Chua had a surprise in store for me.

The last time the original manuscripts were shown to the public was back in 2011, during the celebration of Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary. The exhibit happened shortly after the manuscripts were restored by a joint restoration project by the Philippine and German governments. My father died that year and I didn’t hear about the event, so I wasn’t able to come. I saw pictures online many years later. I couldn’t help but feel envious of those who were able to see the manuscripts in person.

Going back to the story, we were cleared by security and we were led to the elevator. I quickly noticed that some parts of the building were closed for renovation. The place was huge. I may have experienced a lot of disappointments in life because as the elevator began moving, I worried that we wouldn’t be allowed to come near the room where the vault is kept. I brushed the thought away by reminding myself that to be under the same roof as the Noli and El Fili was enough. I smiled and then the elevator doors opened.

El Filibusterismo. The photograph on the page is also original.

We entered a room and I was surprised to see students there. A security personnel approached us and asked for the purpose of our visit. Mr. Chua politely told her that we were there to see someone–I don’t remember who–the director perhaps. We were asked to wait, and I took the opportunity to look around. I smiled and watched as the students busied themselves. I never had to visit the National Library when I was in college, so I was amazed at the sight of them studying there. A few minutes later, the same security personnel came back with someone Mr. Chua recognized. They shook hands and we were led to a passageway not open to the public. We went up the stairs and arrived in an area labeled ‘Rare Books. Authorized Personnel Only.’ I didn’t know for how long will they allow us to be there, so I looked around for the vault with the intention of looking at it for as long as I could if it was around. A kindly lady approached us and asked us to take a seat in front of a long table. The table itself looked plain, but it had photo albums and unassuming boxes on top of it. I paid it little attention, I was so nervous by then. I honestly thought we were asked to sit so they could ask us more questions about our purpose there. And that thought worried me beyond words. I was so sure that we wouldn’t be allowed access, so I focused on appearing calm. Mr. Chua took a wooden chair, very similar to what I was seated on, and sat beside me.

The kindly woman walked to the other side of the table. She was standing in front of us with the table between us. I immediately noticed that she wasn’t planning on sitting down, so that gave me hope. I remember thinking, “She will ask us a few quick questions, and then she will tell us that I could see the vault, or enter the room next to it.”

But, instead of asking us questions, she said nothing and began wearing protective gloves. At that same moment, Mr. Chua said something I could not now recall. I was filled with confusion. “Why is she wearing protective gloves?” I asked myself. My head was spinning as I was trying to focus. I knew the protective glove was a sign, but why would they show me the manuscripts? I decided to be reasonable to prevent disappointment. I looked away and tried to remember what Mr. Chua said, so I could comment or something. Then Mr. Chua began taking a video and he gave the lady a sign. She bent down and opened one of the boxes on the table. My heart stopped. I couldn’t believe what was happening. There, silently waiting for me on the table, was the Noli Me Tangere.

Rizal’s drinking fountain shipped from Germany.

It was the most amazing moment in my life. The best surprise anyone had given me. I was lost for words, the original manuscript of the novel that gave me my voice as a writer was before me. It was the best gift any Rizal-loving writer could ask for.

The Noli had a clear protective covering. The lady told us that she often leave it in place because some people become overly excited at the sight of it. But, she removed it and let me see the whole thing unobstructed.

Forgive me, what you will read next is my poor attempt to describe a moment in my life when words are not sufficient. Pardon me if I’ll end up confusing you. My only vivid memory is the feeling of shock and numbness because I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. In fact, it hasn’t sunk in yet. But, this is what happened next:

She removed the clear protective covering and then she allowed me to bend closer. Mr. Chua was busy taking videos. The lady then opened the manuscript and gave me a chance to take a peek at the pages. She even said that the manuscript, in its present condition, could only be opened at a certain angle. I stood up to take a closer look. Rizal’s handwriting is perfection. Lloyd, my fiance, gave me a facsimile of the Noli and El Fili, but believe me when I say that the original is so much better. The original has something–a soul. The pages seemed to breathe life. When the light hit the paper and the color of the ink stood out, I couldn’t help but imagine Rizal’s palm resting on it, his pen busy translating the world inside his head… It was surreal.

Inside the Rizal Shrine. A fragment of Rizal’s vertebrae.

Then the lady asked me to stand next to her. She asked me to put on a pair of gloves so I can hold the manuscript. I did, and Mr. Chua was generous enough to take my pictures. As I was enjoying my moment, she opened the next box and the El Filibusterismo appeared. She mentioned that its binding is in a much better condition than the Noli, so she took it out of the box and opened it to the first few pages. I was able to hold it and lift the page where an original photograph of Rizal was. Heaven, I was in heaven.

While everything was happening, the lady was kind enough to give us a brief history of the manuscript. But I was so thrilled with what was happening that I didn’t catch much about what she had said. Mr. Chua was the one giving her his full attention. I finally returned to my chair and began to calm down. The lady returned the manuscripts inside their boxes and she set them aside. She then showed us more. She took the Pastor Ullmer Collection and showed it to us. Inside the huge box, she began showing us Rizal’s drawings and letters. And then she retrieved some of the most important Philippine documents, like The Declaration of Independence. I was able to see all of them with my own eyes. Secretly, I kept on looking at the boxes where the Noli and El Fili were kept because I still couldn’t believe I was able to see, hold, and take pictures with them.

Josephine Bracken: Farewell Sweet Stranger.

In the end, the Noli Me Tangere was carried back inside the vault first, and then the El Filibusterismo. The vault, I wasn’t able to see. It was hidden behind a couple of bookshelves. I stood still as they carried the boxes away as a sign of respect for the two novels that changed forever Spain’s claim that the sun never sets on their empire.

I would like to thank Mr. Xiao Chua, who was so generous with his time and effort. He knew all along that I would be able to see the manuscripts, but he made me think otherwise and decided to surprise me. Thank you for arranging a private exhibition of Jose Rizal’s original manuscripts. I also would like to thank ‘the kindly lady’ in this article, Ms. Anne Rossette Crelencia, Assistant Chief Librarian of the Filipiniana Division, for being so patient and so nice. I remember Mr. Chua asking her if we could take pictures with the Noli, she nodded and said, “Opo, pwede po, kasi po ang may ari po ng mga ito ay tayong mga Pilipino.”

Ang sarap maging Pilipino. Mabuhay!



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