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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Rizal Without the Overcoat Book Review

Historian Ambeth Ocampo has always been a Rizal enthusiast. The extensive research conducted by the public historian about Rizal is condensed, serialized, and compiled in a compendium of Ocampo’s essays in his Looking Back column for the defunct Philippine Daily Globe, which then transferred to the broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Rizal Without the Overcoat, Ambeth Ocampo
Image: Rizal Without the Overcoat
In his introduction to the book, Ocampo opens with what is obvious about Rizal: the proliferation of his memory everywhere—from the name of the street to what he called “obligatory statues” built from the schoolyards of Aparri to the public parks gracing the town of Jolo, which became the hallmarks of his title as National Hero.

Yet, the idea behind Ocampo’s work is not a stereotyped framing of Rizal as the ideal icon in the first militant struggle against colonialism in Asia. The idea behind Ocampo’s book, in fact, presents Rizal in an otherwise critical lens: the complete shattering of the idea that Rizal lives in a pedestal of history, or a messianic figure too detached from the world in which he supposedly lived and died.

Rizal Without the Overcoat, Ambeth Ocampo
Image: Spot.Ph
An interesting take from how Ambeth framed his view of Rizal makes the book more interesting. “I have always maintained that Rizal’s greatest misfortune was becoming National Hero of the Philippines,” the eminent public historian wrote, asserting that were it not for his venerable title, people would’ve actually paid more attention to him. I agree. But everything becomes even more exalting when Ambeth professes to how he reached this point in studying Rizal: one day, his father pointed out Rizal’s overcoat.

Indeed, why was Rizal wearing a “heavy winter overcoat” in a tropical country? From the point, Ambeth confessed, he became interested in envisaging how Rizal would appear “without the overcoat”—a euphemistic declaration of stripping off Rizal the mythicized view of him. Hence, all the essays Ocampo had written which were included in the anthology all strove to present Rizal in a unique, even contrarian, view.

Rizal Without The Overcoat, Ambeth Ocampo
Image: Esquire Philippines
In this book, Ocampo debunked the conspiracy theories that Rizal was the tyrant Adolf Hitler’s father or Jack the Ripper, belied the claim that Rizal wrote the poem Sa Aking mga Kabata when he was eight years old, “deflated” the “historical ego” which comes with the view that Rizal is all students’ model in terms of academic excellence, analyzed Rizal’s supposed anti-American fervor, envisioned Noli Me Tangere as a possible cookbook, exposited the possible parallelisms between a draft novel by Rizal and novelist-journalist George Orwell’s fable on totalitarianism, and disclosed Rizal’s similarities with historical revolutionary figures, Ferdinand Blumentritt’s role in the Propaganda Movement, and Rizal’s bookish side.

Almost all, if not all, of Ambeth Ocampo’s articles were fresh takes on Rizal – things you would not normally obtain from a tiresome history class. If only for this, I fully recommend the perusal of Ambeth Ocampo’s compendium of Rizalian articles across social classes.  It’s a must-read on our National Hero.


Written by Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat, IFY Books

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