A Question Of Heroes By Nick Joaquin – Book Review and Reflection

Most students, myself included, learned their history in black and white lens. The Spanish Empire were the bad guys while our heroes are infallible. As we became older, we realize that history, like everything else in life, is more complex. Here I find myself in thirst of literature that presents history with maturity and critical analysis as opposed to childlike view of good versus evil. The book of Nick Joaquin, “A Question Of Heroes” was able to feed that hunger for historical curiosity of mine.

The book got introduced to me through a newspaper article about sections of it regarding General Antonio Luna’s goal of creating a national revolutionary army and his strategic plan of guerrilla warfare with the Americans. I was hooked on such level of historical details so I resolved to have that book. After at least three cover-to-cover readings, I say it is an enjoyable and fulfilling experience. I always learn something new in re-reading it, from details I missed, to having a different perspective.

Below are interesting photos of our historical figures. As a website that primarily focuses on menswear, I would like to insert the fact that they are impeccably dressed!

Ilustrados in Madrid 1890. Photo in one of the book cover. – Wikipedia
“Three prominent Ilustrados in Spain: Dr. José Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar and Mariano Ponce (from left to right). Photo was taken in Spain in 1890.” Also a photo in the book cover. – Wikipedia

This book is about ten figures in Philippine history. It is presented by Nick Joaquin in journalistic essay full of emotions and criticisms instead of a more academic objective analysis. That makes sense as Mr. Joaquin is a writer and not an academic historian. It shows when some of the claims and information lacks references. I said all of this not to present it as a “weakness” of the book but rather as a feature and to set the expectation. His style is actually enjoyable and far from boring that history as a subject has an unfortunate reputation.

The the ten historical figures serves as its chapters. Some of them like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Gregorio Del Pilar , Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Apolinario Mabini, Emilio Aguinaldo and Antonio Luna (made more famous due to the movie “Luna”) are already well known to the Filipinos. There are also known heroes like Jose Burgos (as one of the three martyrs) and Graciano Lopez-Jaena but only in name and some information on what they did. Then there is also the totally unknown Artemio Ricarte which was given prominent emphasis by Mr. Joaquin and had the title of the last revolutionary, the one that never surrendered.

Mr. Joaquin was able to give all of those ten figures the depth of details and analysis in their quirks, actions, motivations and character. He presented them not as perfect heroes, but as humans with weaknesses. And it was not pretty at all. To those that are already well-known, you will see them in a different light. On how our most prominent lawyer in history, Mabini, contradicts himself to avoid the blame for the failure of the revolution. Even the general knowledge that Aguinaldo is a “traitor” for killing Bonifacio is given a different perspective where you will be able to understand if not justify such action.

Each historical figure can be read independently as a critical essay but there is also a connection across the “chapters” that constitutes into one revolution, the revolution of the Illustrados. From the very beginning, even earlier than the one that Jose Burgos started, until the end of Japanese invasion personified by the defeated Ricarte. Mr. Joaquin was able to paint that section of history in a wall that is easy for me to view in its entirety. By doing so, I was even able to connect the present with the past. The current problems, failures and struggles of the Philippines and its people.

I acknowledge though that this book is just one source and should be taken with some grain of salt specially in the most controversial claims. To be fair, those claims about our heroes are still within the realm of logical flow and makes more sense than the “good vs evil” story we’ve been taught. But that is actually the beauty of it as it opens more door for interests to history in search of truth.

I already mentioned how awesome this book is and how I highly recommend this as a reading so I will dedicate this conclusion to a personal reflection. This review might give the impression that this book has a pessimistic mood which in a way is true. Instead of inspiring heroes, It showed our historical figures in their most flawed humanity and in turn, the failures of our nation.

I can’t know Mr. Joaquin’s purpose of writing this book, so I’ll just give what I’ve got from it. Knowing our history that is closer to the truth, even at the cost of humanizing our heroes, is important for our present and future as it allows as to learn from the mistakes of the past.

I actually find it more hopeful to learn that our heroes are as flawed as me or anyone. It always bothered me that our country is still poor even though we are supposed to have a plethora of heroic historical figures. If the great Rizals or Bonifacios are unable to achieve their dreams for the country, what hope do we have. After reading the book, I realized how flawed that mindset is. The mindset of reliance to heroes and heroic worship. There are no heroes that will save us. It is up to us individual to be better, our actions and character as Filipino, for the betterment of the country.

Happy reading!

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