Rizal’s Simoun and winds of destruction

Jose Rizal must have wanted his two novels to be read as one book, that is why on the title page of the hand-written original of ”El Filibusterismo” (1891) these words appear in parenthesis– (II parte del Noli Me Tangere). But, Rizal crossed it out before bringing the manuscript to the printer. Be that as it may, some historians now refer to the 2 novels as only one, the “Noli-Fili.” That seems logical because Crisostomo Ibarra of the “Noli Me Tangere” (1887) re-appears as Simoun in the “segunda parte” and the clashing arguments of Rizal’s characters (he was debating with himself) about colonialism, assimilation, national identity, reform and revolution are finally answered and resolved in the “segunda parte.”

Simoun is fascinating, fearsome, despicable and pitiful all at the same time, with a life mission greater than that of Edmund Dantes’s ( Count of Monte Cristo). I have always wondered where Rizal got that name. Many years ago, I started a business and called it “Simoun Jewelry” which made friends panic because they were sure the military would link me to subversive activities. Nothing happened, I doubt if any of the top brass read Rizal’s novels.

Some historians say that Simoun was an allusion to Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), a Venezuelan military leader, the liberator of South America, who led Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Panama and Venezuela to independence from Spanish colonial rule. I finally found the answer in Isaac Donoso’s introduction to Vibal Foundation’s “edición crítica”of “El Filibusterismo” (2021).

According to Mr. Donoso, Simoun is the Frenchified version of the classical Arab word samum. In the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, it appears as simún or simum and defined as “a pestilential wind that blows in the deserts of Africa and Arabia. He did not say where or when Rizal first came across that word; could it be when Rizal was in a boat on the Suez Canal? He did write about a mirage in the desert; maybe one of the locals told him about the destructive winds called simún. Rizal was a voracious reader, could he have come across Herodotus’s account of Psylli? That was a tiny nation in the heart of a desert that foolishly declared war against the simún which buried it forever under layers of sand.

Though the Arabic word simún inspired fear and awe because of its annihilating powers, it may not have sounded intriguing enough, nor mysterious enough for someone as imaginative as Rizal. It had no resonance for non-Arab speakers, and he was writing not for the Arabs nor Spaniards but for his compatriots.

According to Mr. Donoso, Rizal used Simoun, the Gallic version, “…to imbue the character with hypnotic power and mystery or because he wished to use an orthographic form that was hardly known in Spanish. “In any case, simún is a desert wind that rises suddenly and causes a dense sand storm that eventually changes the landscape.” And that is exactly what Rizal’s character did. Mr. Donoso wrote: “…he sweeps up the entire space and leads inexorably to a cataclysm. Simoun’s mantra was tabula rasa, which ensured that no stone would be left unturned to guarantee the renewal of the future.”

There are many myths and legends about winds in world literature and also in our folklore. I wonder if Rizal considered Habagat or Buhawi. Habagat is our deity for wind and rain and his kingdom is himpapawid (sky). June to October is the Habagat season. The winds of the southwest monsoon helped galleons sail at full mast during the tornaviaje to Mexico. According to legend, Habagat fell in love with Amihan, the northeast monsoon that gives these islands fine weather from November to March. Habagat defeated all of Amihan’s wind suitors including the merciless Buhawi (tornado). No, I don’t think a protagonist named Sr. Habagat or Buhawi would have worked.

The ancient Greeks had a panoply of wind gods. In Sparta, the finest horses were sacrificed to aeolian deities. Boreas was the north wind which brought winter; Zephyrus, the west wind that heralded spring and an early summer; Notus was from the south, so desiccatingly hot that it unfurled storms in the late summer. Perhaps, Rizal pondered on these possibilities but he chose Simoun because its very sound invoked images of callousness, depravity and corruption, the very opposite of the gentle, romantic, idealistic young Crisostomo Ibarra, who believed in education and reforms. Mr. Donoso said that Rizal’s knowledge of various languages and their levels of usage allowed him to effectively use techniques of the European social novel to illustrate what was happening in the Philippines.