Wilhelm Tell in Manila (Annette Hug, 2016)

Annette Hug’s novel “Wilhelm Tell in Manila” follows the life of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal through the jungle of words and languages.

Annette Hug: William Tell in Manila. Novel. Wunderhorn, Heidelberg 2016. 198 pages, 19.80 euros.

The ambitious novel essentially attempts to tell the story about how literature changes the world. For Jose Rizal, his attempt to change the world with literature ends in his own death.

Rizal is written as someone coming from an aristocratic house before travelling to Europe in 1886 as a medical doctor and writer. He studied in Madrid, practiced eye surgery in Heidelberg and had his novel “Noli me tangere” printed in Berlin. Along the way he translated Schiller’s play about the Swiss patriot William Tell into his mother tongue: Tagalog. When he returns to Manila, he is caught in the middle of an uprising against Spanish colonizers. Rizal at 35 years old, is treated as the leader and chief agitator of this uprising.

There are dozens of biographies and several films about the Philippine national hero but only a few of them ever discuss his writings, much less his translations and other prose which are equally important. In her novel “Wilhelm Tell in Manila”, Swiss author Annette Hug plunges deep into Rizal’s lonely struggle for the right words. He is in a foreign country and is lost between several languages.The dialect-speaking waitress in the beer garden adds another voice to the confusion.

Rizal relates the struggle of the Swiss against the Habsburg tyrants to the plight of his colonized homeland. In the process of translation, he invokes Swiss history from long ago into his Philippine present.

“Translation”parallels an overseas journey from one culture to another. It’s about how one remains sober when the “sentences start to circle” and the syllables get out of hand.

As in Fieberrausch, (deliriums/ deliryo) which is common in bitter-cold Berlin (a plaque commemorates Rizal in Jägerstraße 71), the tropics intermingle with the Alps, Küssnacht becomes Calamba, the Lake of Lucerne becomes the Pacific Ocean. His surroundings seeth under the snow-capped mountains. The Moors become Laguna de bai, the Rütlischwür turn into phonetic rhymes, and the litanies of the women into homerian songs.

Rizal’s „Anstrengungen des Begriffs“ (Definition of terms?) is a treat to the linguistically inspired author’s excuse for linguistic excursions into the  jungle of the Filipino language. It can be recalled that Wilhelm von Humboldt alone has already listed 17 different forms of the Tagalog saying: „Überall über das Bedürfnis überschießende Fülle” (“Kahit saan naghahari ang pangangailangan sa labis na kayamanan”).

Behind a heartbreaking reminiscence of Tell’s life story, the eulogy is also veiled by the richness of a culture that developed well before the arrival of the Spaniards.


José Rizal came to Germany in 1886 as a young ophthalmologist and novelist. During this time it was not yet apparent that he will become the national hero of the Philippines. The archipelago at the edge of the Pacific was still a colony of the Spanish empire.

Rizal contracted liberal ideas while he was studying in Madrid and he was warned by his brother Paciano, against returning to Manila. Paciano recommended that he instead retreat to safety in Germany. But both of them agreed that he could do something for his people while abroad so in Heidelberg and Leipzig, Rizal translated Friedrich Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” into his mother language: Tagalog.

Just as the landscape shifts in the novel (the Alps rise on a tropical island), the protest against the opressive rule of Gessler, become an attack against the intrigue of the Catholic Church. The mountains break out as volcanoes.

Rizal’s stay in Germany is written as a journey of translation. Words must be found in Tagalog, or analogies, if ideas do not correspond to a single word. Translation becomes a song of hope for the insurrection to rise up against the colonial lords. The chaos of translation is the chaos of the revolution: it also becomes an analogy of the discovery of the fear that violence destroys all order.

The José Rizal of history does what the Jose Rizal of Anette Hug’s fiction left out to do. He returns home. The insurrection takes place and Rizal is condemned and executed in Manila in 1896 for inciting to sedition and treason.

Translated with some addition from the original review by Sabine Vogel published in the Frankfurter Rundschau

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