Noli 1.3 A Dinner Conversation

Postmodernism was a reaction to modernism. Where modernism was about objectivity, postmodernism was about subjectivity. Where modernism sought a singular truth, postmodernism sought the multiplicity of truths.
– Miguel Syjuco

There was not much time for us to converse, for shortly the dinner bell sounded. Yet in that time I felt I had made some useful new acquaintances and promises to call upon their homes (and vice versa to my own in San Diego).

Jose Tayunco was the son of a printer; Raul Perez Urdaneta was the son of an officer in the Guardia Civil Veterana, the urban gendarmerie of Manila; Felix Romano, a painter; and specially the strange young poet Andrade who was jailed for writing in his poem ‘the son of a lion is still a lion‘, the slogan of the Spanish Republicans.

Ah, the Spanish Republic. We already know of the Carlist Wars, in which Infante Carlos of Spain sought to claim the throne of Spain after the death of his older brother King Ferdinand VII in 1833. At that time, Isabella, who had displaced him in the line of succession, was only three years old.

Isabella became head of state when the Cortes, long exasperated with the civil wars and the insolvency of the government caused by said wars, declared that rather than another regent the 13-year old Isabella was of age to rule. Spain at this time had long ceased to be a direct monarchy, but its Prime Minister and head of the Cortes was called President of the Government, and he was the one called to form the means of its rule. Isabella’s power was to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister and thus the shape of the government as a whole.

Unfortunately, rapidly she was inundated by competing courtiers and ideological influences, and her rule was wracked with civil wars, coups, assassinations, and scandals.

Isabella had a tendency of vacillating between the liberal and the radical, appointing and sacking Prime Ministers and thus directions of government in succession, alienating moderates and those hopeful for lasting working reform, until opposition to her policies finally crossed faction lines.

She was deposed in the Glorious Revolution in 1868.  The Cortes sought a more moderate king, and thought that Amadeo of the House of Savoy could serve; he had less political baggage and was known for his liberal views.

Amadeo I, son of the King of Italy, was rapidly thrust into the plotting and instability of Spanish politics. A Carlist uprising erupted again, and in February 1973, he decided to abandon the whole thing declaring the people of Spain to be “ungovernable”, leaving the Carlists and Republicans to battle over the forlorn pieces of their nation.

The Republicans won. The First Republic, in 1873, which lasted from February 1873 to December 1874, an ambitious yet poorly structured attempt at allowing federalization.

Then they too were thrown off with the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty under Alfonso XII, Isabela II’s son. Who has just died in November 1885. And now, once more, Spain is to be ruled by an infant.

It seems the only reason Spain has not exploded yet again is because the people have finally become tired of war.  Ah pitiful Mother Spain. No, your hopes in the next more liberal republic will only show them to be a spirited yet ineffectual crop as bad as anything your old monarchy. Yet the death of this Empire has been long and torturous, I wonder if I have a right to delay you the release from your own misery. Your colonies, rather than your pride, has become the millstone about your neck.

You remain nearly bankrupt, but you send to the Philippines nearly a million pesos a year in administrative costs and get in tax retuns barely a trifle more. Cuba is a massively more important and profitable territory, yet it would pull you into the war that would end your life as a Great Power.

It is odd, to think of Spain in such terms while standing in this land which had long feared Spain as a monolithic power of guns and crosses, but España had never really been a very united kingdom.

To the Philippines, Spain is a shockingly liberal land. Eagerly I was asked about what it was like in the ‘mother country’, and well if you could look past the constant quarrels it was a place of bravery and intellectual profusion. Certainly not far behind the rest of Europe and America; hers is the gateway! She still straddles both sides of the world, and benefit from two cultural spheres!

The interests of these young men I piqued by saying that through my time in Germany I had also spent translating the works of Verne and Mark Twain into Spanish. Perhaps if time permitted, we could meet again, and not only would I share some of the books I had commissioned to be printed, I challenged them all to a simultaneous game of chess.

They looked amused at my challenge but were willing to oblige. A La Liga Filipina this was not yet, but I had more to introduce to them before we could speak more openly of challenging the status quo. In Spain, we youth had the hobby of spending our free time practicing fencing and shooting, here a suspicious past-time. Oh but a plague I would unleash upon the idle young men of these lands. A tabletop menace.

But now it is time for dinner. We sit around a long table, draped with white cloth. A large carafe of the tinola which I had not tasted for years was brought out, and servants ladled into each person’s bowls. As the works of Rizal had predicted my bowl held the choice meats while Padre Damaso somehow ended with the neck and meatless wings of the chicken. He scowls with dissatisfaction and drops his spoon noisily upon his plate.

He is angry, because he considers himself a Very Important Person, and it was the custom to offer important personages the best hospitality of the house. And long had he presumed upon the high esteem of this household.

Señor Laruja, a short man with a whisker sideburns and a large nose almost unto Cyrano asks me “How long have you been away from the homeland?” I knew him already as a man who thought that there was no creature on earth so indolent, so ungrateful, or so uncouth, as the indio, and I turn to him with all cheer. There is comfort in knowing there was no need whatsoever to make this man my ally.

“Seven years, sir.”

“Come! You must have forgotten her, then!”

“I would more fear that she sees in me a stranger, sir. These last two years, I was away in northern Germany and in Russian Poland, and thus could not receive any wire from home. It is only very recently that I learned that my father had passed.”

“How did you manage?” Doña Victorina segues in quickly, lest the turn of the topic darken the mood of the conversation. “I would think there are few speakers of Spanish there.”

“Their own language was useful to me, madam.”

“Do you also speak English?” asks Father Sybila. The Dominican had spent time in Hong Kong, and spoke the pidgin English by the natives there.

I sniffed and hung my nose in the air. “By Jove, I should say so sir!” I spoke in the most upper crust of British accents.

“Or I can talk like a Yank, if you prefer,” I say next in a drawl that was actually more Texan.

He laughs. The young Dominican who is handsome to the point of prettiness applauds by tapping at the sides of his bowl.

“Wonderful!” says Doña Victoria, impressed and not a little amused. “Is that all that languages you can speak? You were in Russian Poland, you said?”

“English was a capable bridge there, where German did not. They still speak Polish there. Of Russian, I am so-so.” It is not yet Soviet Russia, there they do not yet learn you.

“After Mother Spain, what is your favorite country?” asks the blonde young traveler, who I now know is Julio Mata, who came here to write a book on Colonial Studies.

“Germany, where I studied, of no doubt, because it has decided to set itself at the forefront of the sciences.”

Rizal did not live to see the First World War, to see Europe shattered by the fruit of the sciences it so trusted. It would shatter their faith in the idea that science and technology could solve all the ills of mankind. They would feel betrayed. The intellectuals led them straight into the killing fields.

“Certainly I have heard that about Germany,” Señor Laruja adds. “But you, as someone so well-traveled, what did you find most notable?”

“In what manner?”

“For example, with reference to the life of the people… social life, political, religious, in general its essence… its totality!”

In another life I would have said something about the ‘prosperities and misery of its people are equal to its liberties or concerns, and consequently to the sacrifices or selfishness of its ancestors’, and drawn biting rebuke from Father Damaso. That it was no worth wasting a fortune sending someone to Europe to learn of something any child knows.

In another life I would have been so affronted and unknowing how to respond that I would just leave in the middle of this dinner. Run away, rather than suffer insult. Perhaps it is within our nature to punish those who dare criticize and hurt our feelings with a personal shunning. That Ibarra, as Rizal has written him, was a very impulsive youth. And it is the way of all who men who live to wish to punch their idiotic past selves in the face. So many things we miss in our springtime and ignorance!

But right here, right now I have a hundred years of perspective. It is said that rarely one is given a chance to make a good first impression, so I shall not waste this moment.

“I should say that Germany is very open to new ideas, its people very welcoming of strangers, and in that the foundation of their prosperity.

But…” here I opened my palms helplessly “I am a young man. So of course what would fascinate me more are machines. Machines and electricity. Mechanization and industry and the unforeseen wealth it brings. Lights and photography! Engines and speed! Ah! The world is changing so fast, and it is dizzying to know how to react to all of this. The cultures that can wrestle with these changes shall reign in the coming century. “

“And you have seen much of this in Germany?”

“Of course, of course! Germany has some of the finest steel mills in the world, aiming to compete with Britain’s expertise. I tell you, I am sure, even now they are building warships that are no less strong than the finest of the Royal Navy’s new battleships.”

Padre Damaso scoffs. “This is not fitting conversation for the dinner table.” The Franciscan jerked his head towards Doña Victorina.

“Why not?” the woman replies. “Machines do not interest me, but this is fresh news of Europe. Do go on, young man.”

“You were but a student there, how can you know this much?” asked the young blonde traveler.

I smile. The world pauses. And it resumes. “Alfred Krupp was introduced to the Bessemer process of mass-producing steel by his London agent and friend, Alfred Longsdon, somewhere around eighteen fifty-nine or eighteen-sixty. After a lengthy period of trial and error, this steel was developed to such quality that the royal factory of Woolwich in England acquired steel from Krupp to manufacture guns that conformed to British naval standards. Also, Krupp was one of the first manufacturers to design practical breechloading guns for army use.”

Faintly surprised murmurs ripple through the table. None seem to care to challenge the veracity of the facts I have so bravely stated. Only an acquaintance to an insider should know this much.

“It is interesting, to be sure, but what else have you learned? Surely that was not why you were sent to study in Germany?” said Father Sybila.

“German ships, hmf. They are not colonial powers, the German Navy is as foolish a thought as a flying turtle,” says Laruja.

I shrug noncommittally. “I will not speak of their naval practices, of which I have no true knowledge, merely that in steelworks, the Germans are among the world’s best. Only the Americans can consistently do better.”

Half the table look aggrieved, the other half appear more excited. “Americans. Too long have they insulted Mother Spain with impunity,” Señor Laruja speaks, wiggling his jaw and whiskers. “One day they shall be put in their place.”

“W-what do you know of the Americans?” Don de Espadaña squeaks out. Doña Victorina’s henpecked husband was a pure-blooded Spaniard who came to the Philippines as a Customs employee. A broken leg left him lamed and dismissed from his post, but even having nothing else to do as a peninsular it was beneath his honor to perform manual labor. It was forbidden! It was suggested that he go off and pretend to be a doctor in the barrios. He is now a quack doctor that charges exorbitant rates in the city.

As shy and harmless as he might look, how many in the provinces had his utter lack of medical knowledge harmed? Now he is trapped in a marriage with his wealthy mestiza wife. A trophy husband, as far as that may go.

“It has been but two decades since they shot themselves in the heart over the issue of slavery, which we have never set forth as an institution. They are… unfairly blessed. Estados Unidos is vast nation, larger than all of Europe (if we set aside the icy reaches of the Finns and the Rus), with incalculable amounts of untapped resources. They are protected by two unbreakable shields – the distance of the Pacific to their West, and the distance of the Atlantic to their East. Ton by ton they attempt to craft a Navy equal or superior to even that of the British – and I fear they will succeed, because with their wealth they will build themselves a seemingly endless wall of steel and guns.”

I blink and pause the world again.

“In 1875, Britain accounted for forty-seven percent of world production of pig iron and almost forty percent of steel. Forty percent of British output was exported to the U.S., which was rapidly building its rail and industrial infrastructure. But even as convenient as the iron and coal reserves, the United States is an entire continent. These rails, now built, will allow them to massively increase their production. In 1870, Britain production was eight point seven million tons of pig iron and the US one and point seven million. Germany produced one point five-or-six million.

Right now? The United States produces eight million tons of pig iron. Britain’s steel production has plateaued and will soon be surpassed. They cannot meaningfully increase their resource much further. From here on it is quality, not quantity, that will decide, unless the Americans so churlishly decide to do both.”

Father Sibyla quirks his lips. “Point? What an odd way of speaking. One point two million, instead of one and two million. Odd. But I like it. It sounds very definitive. Do you also say… point three, instead of one-third?”

“I regretfully admit that I have that habit, yes.”

“Extravagant lies! How could you even know this?” Padre Damaso interjects. “There is no reason on Earth, no reason at all!”

“I have spoken to people about our common interests,” I reply, “and I welcome anyone to try and prove my figures false. It should be easy enough to verify, if you write a letter to the newspapers or libraries in America. They care overmuch for statistics there.”

“Would you happened to know how much iron Spain produces?” surprisingly it is the Teniente that challenges me.

“Last year exports through Bilbao totaled three point one million tons,” I respond without a moment’s hesitation.

Silence greets the absolute confidence with which I speak these words.

After a while he says, “You are a spy.”

“I would certainly not be a competent one if I admit to it so easily. No, I am just well-informed. Very well-informed.” I sigh and dip my spoon into my bowl of chicken tinola and swirl it about. “And here I will have to start all over again. In the seven years I have been away, now I know almost nothing about my native land and its people. Many are the discoveries I wished to discuss with my father, ah! Impossible now. Impossible now.”

Padre Damaso looks at me much more warily now. I smile back. He looks away.

I lean forward as if to whisper but keep my voice of a normal tone. It is hard to disguise my enthusiasm. “But let it not be said that Spain lags behind advancement. Pray, have you heard of Isaac Peral and his submarine?”

—————-

There is a danger here. What if my knowledge, born in the future, is wrong?

What if the world and the individuals are different? What of the butterfly theory?

What is the mechanism, that we may leverage it?

Mine is the sum total of human knowledge. All human knowledge. Even present knowledge. There is a world-soul, and [Googol] – the interface, not the dog – speaks to it, and to me. And I fear it may consume me.

To you who stands there beyond the gulf of a hundred years, what would you do? We are linked souls, you and I, woven together by this Jungian artifact. But I am not you and you are not me – we are echoes of each other. I am not here to maximize advantages and uplift this world to the level of comfort you expect. I have not lived in your century, though I have the memory of the utter ease by which you move day by day. No king of ages past has ever lived with in such great luxury as you!

To you who stand there at the end of time, the benefit of hindsight is immense. But I ask you to imagine as I feel who stand here at the crux of history. God has given us free will. Yet we scream to the Almighty – Lord! Tell us what to do. Lord! Grant me strength. Lord! Grant me luck in all my endeavors! I surrender myself to you, oh Lord, or to your anointed, that I may have the peace and surety of not having to bear the consequences of my own decisions.

The priests say, do not seek to learn too much, for it will take you away from God. It will encourage skepticism and materialism, and what does it merit to gain the whole world but lose your own soul? I say, too much knowledge can indeed be a frightening object. It is not just there are things man is not meant to know, but that man is a finite existence. The terror of free will and the consequence of mortality is that you cannot try everything.

Too many valid choices only lead into paralysis. The future, I can shape, but in what manner? These lives I can influence, but who is strong enough to carry their fate? Ideas blaze between my ears, one after the other, flickering like fireflies.

For example, with his two novels, Rizal became a martyr to shape the birth of a nation. Yet I know a woman, with seven books, to become the first billionaire through writing alone. At this moment, as a thief of culture, I might be able to write with sufficient factual detail to convince enough people to the point of international hysteria that a Wizarding World exists. The amount of knowledge that I can grasp is outright magical.

Upon the altar of knowledge I need only offer myself. You tempt me. I am the one who stands before the hundred, a hundred branching roads out into infinity, and enough of you whisper – the best revenge is to live well. It is better to laugh and confound your enemies, and take ruthless advantage of their ignorance.

I am Crisostomo Ibarra. I must be true only to myself. Or this will all be for nothing.

—————-

Piano music floats over the living room, and the revelers have been thinned out from those who only invited themselves to be fed. I sit at Capitan Tiago’s grand piano, rather than let it stand there as an unused decoration. I have been granted not just memory, but muscle memory, otherwise most of my time I should spend flailing about in hilarious ineptitude attempting to put theoretical knowledge into practice.

Unlike Rizal, before my sea-change, I was a horrible artist.

The night has deepened, and now those who remain are those who look to be seen and wish for more careful conversation with their peers. Their lips are loosened by wine, enough space has been cleared, and with hangers-on done with dinner only the important people remained.

It was not for these dinner guests that I stayed. It was not for the sake of forging connections that I held my tongue from the insults and the truths behind these smiling vipers’ facades.

Even the fate of the nation remains to me an abstract thing, for I knew that I only had to move very little to see Spain’s authority over these lands come tumbling down, tumbling down. I am Crisostomo Ibarra and I must remain true to myself or this will all have been for nothing.

I speak of the only being on this Earth that can sway me from my goals.

I can feel the web of emotions snap, and the music stops, and all attention is drawn to the stairway.

She appears rising like Athena from the foam before of this throng of Filipinos, Chinese, Spaniards, old women, young men, daughters, and etc., at her approach they open out like the waves. She is garbed in the white, semi-translucent laced gown that is the paean to all femininity, and upon her svelte neck is a string of pearls and diamonds that reflected all colors of the rainbow. She is fair – too fair; her eyes usually downcast and demure reveal a pureness of soul, and a guileless intellect. It is the night, but the sun has risen. The Pearl of the Orient, her most precious treasure, stands before me.

“Maria Clara…” I whisper.

“Crisostomo…” She looks stunned. Her lips part in longing and questions unspoken.

“Maria Clara.” I smile. Never, Maria Clara. Never have I forgotten. I am ever yours.

“Cristomo.” She smiles back.

“Maria Clara!” My heart sings out as I take one step forward.

“Crisostomo…!” She shyly hides her face behind her fan.

“Maria Cla-“

I feel a hand slap upon my shoulders. “And that will be enough of that.” I turn to see Capitan Tiago on the verge of laughter. The other guests have less self-control. Doña Victorina’s scowl is epic in scope. And only in this will I forgive Padre Damaso’s enmity.

“Capitan Tiago…” I huff. Her father’s approval is the only one that matters, as long as Maria Clara does not know this shameful secret.

“Ibarra,” he warns.

I raise both arms in surrender and laugh lightly.

———–

I am Crisostomo Ibarra and to the Angelic Hosts and through centuries I do so declare – I am a man in love with Maria Clara! In this life, this I swear, I defy the fate Rizal dictated for my beloved – in this life, she shall be safe. She shall be happy. She shall not be harmed the envy and intrigues of the scorpions and worms that surround her.

She shall not die, alone and unloved, one more pure soul destroyed by the hand of colonial oppression. I would break the world before seeing you hurt again!

Maria Clara, my dearest, my light! Only grant me your love, and soon I shall be invincible.


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