A VISITOR would think they were priceless gems, so closely guarded were they by two men in red uniforms and bearskin caps.
They were, in a sense, jewels enclosed in two glass cases in the sixth floor grand ballroom of a Manila hotel.
Enshrined in glass were rare copies of Jose Rizalâ€™s two controversial novels that sparked the Philippine Revolution against Spanish colonial rule — and they were home at last.
More than a century old, they are first edition copies of â€œNoli Me Tangereâ€ and â€œEl Filibusterismo.â€
After 25 years of a search in Spain by the publisher and owner of Vibal Publishing House Inc., Gaspar Vibal, the books are finally with the people whose yearnings to be free inspired Rizal to write them.
â€œI feel very privileged to have been able to bring them home and share them with fellow Filipinos [in order] to help them rediscover the birth of our nation and reconnect with our Fil-Hispanic culture,â€ Vibal told the Inquirer yesterday during the Tribuna, a gathering of Filipino and Spanish officials and dignitaries at the Hyatt Hotel and Casino Manila.
First published in Berlin
According to Vibal, it was highly possible that the two copies were actually handled by Rizal himself.
Based on Wenceslao Retanaâ€™s biography of Rizal, publishing a book in a foreign language outside Spain at the time was costly. Still, Rizal did not dare publish his first novel, â€œNoli Me Tangere,â€ in Madrid as he knew it would be censored.
However, with the aid of a friend, Maximo Viola, a wealthy Filipino doctor, the first 2,000 copies of the novel were printed in Berlin in 1887.
Rizal, himself, did the typography to reduce the costs of printing.
â€˜Filiâ€™ was smuggled
On the other hand, the first edition of the â€œEl Filibusterismo,â€ which Rizal started writing in London and completed in France, was released in September 1891, in Ghent, where he found a cheap printer.
Retana wrote that the second novel was never written for the Spaniards. Rizal, instead, sent the whole print to his residence in Hong Kong, where he requested colleagues to quietly smuggle one copy at a time to the Philippines.
Retana said that the â€œEl Filibusterismoâ€ was so rare in Europe that he acquired a copy only after the turn of the last century.
Vibal and a friend, European delegate Jaime Marco, also had a hard time looking for a copy of the novels.
After a futile search in every nook and cranny of libraries and fairs in Spain for 25 years, they finally stumbled upon them last month at the Old Book Fair in Madrid, Vibal recounted.
The rare copies had been, for the last five years, in the possession of Paco Martinez of Libros Tunicia, a Spanish book collector in Madrid, who had acquired them from the library of Adelina Gurrea Monasterio, said Vibal.
Years of waiting
Monasterio, a Filipino of Spanish descent, is among the greatest Filipino writers in Spanish, having been a Premio Zobel awardee in 1956.
â€œSeÃ±or Martinez said he had waited for so many years for the right Filipino to take good care of the books and bring them to the Philippines. Many Spaniards wanted to acquire them but he turned them down,â€ Vibal said.
Asked how much he paid to acquire the books, he only said: â€œThey are very expensive.â€
Vibal was careful not to reveal the price, concerned that such an information might put the prized items in danger.
Passage of time
Time has yellowed the pages of the books, but their bindings are still flawless — a sign that they have been handled with â€œso much reverence,â€ Vibal noted.
â€œWe will also accord these books with respect and proper honor as they represent the birth of our nation,â€ he said.
Vibal said the public could view and actually read the two books for free through the Filipiniana.net, a premiere digital library and online research portal launched last week at the 19th International Association of Historians of Asia Conference in Makati City.
The books will add to the websiteâ€™s thriving collection of â€œrare, arcane and out-of-printâ€ materials in English, Spanish and Filipino which date back to pre-16th century.
â€œWe are very grateful to have these books. We want to spread the word that itâ€™s OK to study our Fil-Hispanic culture because it is part of our heritage,â€ Vibal said.
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