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Don Quixote in the Philippines

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By: Bob Boyer


My son gifted me with a book of three essays about the great Spanish epic, “Don Quixote of La Mancha.” He gave it to me on Christmas morning, as my wife and I celebrated the holiday at his house with him and his family in Washington, D.C. He explained that it was my birthday (October) present that he had not gotten round to sending to me in Wisconsin. I smiled. Son Tim always has been a bit eccentric, like Don Quixote (also Quijote), just not to the same extreme. I smiled again when he told me he got it at the amazing Filipino bookstore called Arkipelago in San Francisco. And I smiled a third time when I read the title, “If a Filipino Writer Reads Don Quijote.” First thing after giftexchanging, I sat down to address the question posed by the title.

The answer—or answers—are provided by three famous Filipino authors who were asked to reflect on their own readings of the “Quixote,” specifically how it may have influenced Philippine Literature and how it related to the Philippines generally. I should note here that the three essays were original lectures commissioned by the Instituto Cervantes of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in 2005 to mark the 400th Anniversary of “Don Quixote.” The Instituto Cervantes’ goal is to record and promote the historical-literary-cultural ties between the Philippines and Spain.

The first of the three lectures/essays is by Alfred A. Yuson. I will focus mainly on him, partly because he comes first and partly because I found him the most entertaining (perhaps the most “Quixotic”) as well as informative. I include the other notables,Vicente G. Groyon and F. Sionil Jose, in the concluding paragraph.

Yuson begins by admitting that he first became acquainted with “Don Quixote” in the “Classics Comic Books” version, and he never says when (or whether) he read the original. Instead of a scholarly treatise, he first takes us on a survey of Google searches and Wikipedia and other online sources. Only then does he cite scholarly articles with their impressive analyses of the book. Then he mischievously gives his own opinion: “Personally, I like to think that the work is primarily one of comic, antic imagination. And that the rest of the positive features are, so to speak, gravy.”

Yuson continues in this whimsical vein until he remembers that he is supposed to address “the influence” the book “may have had on the local landscape, literary and otherwise.” He knows that the eminent Nick Joaquin at the age of 17 wrote a poem on Don Quixote (he could not locate a copy) and that, as a satirist, Joaquin assumed the pen name “Quijano of Manila,” imitating “Quijote of La Mancha.” Yuson has no clear evidence that National Hero Jose Rizal was influenced by Cervantes, but he quotes Rizal passages that echo Quixote’s appeals for freedom and liberty. At the end of the print version, however, Yuson graciously notes that someone attending his lecture later informed him that while in college (Santo Tomas), Rizal wrote a prize-winning play that compared Cervantes with Homer and Vergil.

Late in the lecture/essay, Yuson compares the character of Don Quixote with traditional Filipino traits. These ring strikingly true: “The adjective “quixotic,” which means idealistic and impractical . . . may be said to apply only too well to our aspirations for a less exciting and less intrigue-ridden socio-political life”; and “we may continue to delight in Cervantes’ novel, its lightness of tone and winking worldview, its comic turns . . . . Hmm, I seem to have just described our contemporary history.”

The other two writers, Vicente Garcia Groyon and Francisco Sionil Jose, follow a similar pattern to Yuson’s, with some variations. Their tracings of the influences of the “Quixote” on the “local landscape literary and otherwise” are more detailed. Like Yuson, Groyon sees relatively little direct literary influence at work. Sionil Jose, however, shows how he modelled several works, notably his novel “Viajero,” after the “Quixote.” Both follow Yuson in seeing the romantic link, noting how Filipinos, like Cervantes, revel in satirical humor and yet simultaneously, like the immortal Don, are inclined to tilt at windmills and dream impossible dreams. Hmm. Sounds about right to me.

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