“Wilhelm Tell in Manila” and its reviews


In April 2016, the third novel by the Swiss author Annette Hug was published in Heidelberg, Germany.


Summary: “Wilhelm Tell in Manila” is the story of a Filipino novelist and medical doctor travelling in Germany. While in Leipzig, he translates a famous play by Friedrich Schiller, “Wilhelm Tell”, into Tagalog. While Rizal has become the national hero of the Philippines, William Tell (or Wilhelm Tell) is the national hero of Switzerland. 

Back in 1886, it wasn't easy to transfer the story of a medieval uprising situated in the Swiss Alps into the indigenous language of Manila and its surroundings. A number of geographical features had to be adapted: What's an avalanche of snow in a tropical landscape? In Rizal's translation, we encounter a mixed geography where Chinese junks and Spanish galleons cross the “Ocean of Lucerne”. 

As Friedrich Schiller reflected the question of violence that had beset him since Robespierre's brutal degradation of the French Revolution, Rizal is challenged to transpose a philosophical vocabulary of Natural Law into his mother tongue, a language just about to develop into a medium of political discourse and philosophy. 

Annette Hug's novel tells the story of this translation, interweaving the travels and thoughts of a young liberal Filipino with the story of William Tell. Positive reviews in major German newspapers have pointed out different aspects of the novel: 


Tobias Lehmkuhl, in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, published in Munich on May 3, 2016, says the following:

“Rizal's time in Germany is the focus of this short and clever novel by Annette Hug, his time with William Tell, to be precise. His distant home, the experience in Germany and the liberation struggle of the Swiss overlap in various constellations. There aren't just the junks crossing the Lake of Lucerne, we suddenly perceive Rudolph Virchow holding the “head of an Igorot”. When Melchthal, one of the conspirators on the meadow of Rütli, meets his father who has been blinded by the soldiers of Habsburg, Rizal imagines the emptied eye sockets in the operating theatre of his medical teachers. 

For some viewers, Schiller's play has to be adapted to Filipino realities in order for them to understand the story, but other people have to be excluded from comprehension, the Spanish friars, for example. They usually learn Tagalog in their adult years, only using the most simple forms of a verb. Sitting in the first row watching the new play, they will not understand what is happening to the word ‘totoo’, where truth is coming from, how it will dissipate and make itself heard as the word is growing and Ruodi says: 'makapagpapatotoo'.'

The translator has to be a master of veiling and unveiling at the same time; Tagalog seems to offer all the means needed. Even Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote that the Malay verb had unfolded most amazingly in the Tagalog language. More so: The scientist called it a gift of inner destiny to the Tagal people. May their race have sunken into weakness and sloth, it would always be capable of working itself upward by the sheer force of it's own language.

In Annette Hug's intelligent novel, Rizal's work with language proves to be a revolutionary deed in itself; especially when Spanish gets in the way: The decision to avoid Spanish vocabulary is equivalent to refuse the greeting of Gessler's hat. And if you don't remember exactly who Gessler was and Melchthal and why William Tell had to shoot an apple from the head of his son, don't worry. You will be led from the first act of the play to the last, carefully, following Rizal through the entanglement of German, Filipino and Schiller's worlds. 

Appropriate to the subject, the prose of this novel is subtle and witty: ‘He can't translate in a straight forward way if a German sentence strikes him as particularly beautiful. Silence has to grow between the languages for him to hear that other voice singing on a higher note.’ Reading the German sentences of this novel, we seem to hear an echo of that distant voice.”


Sabine Vogel's review in the “Frankfurter Rundschau”, on April 4, 2016, bears the title “Refreshingly Eccentric”, and says the following: 

“There are dozens of biographies and several films about the national hero of the Philippines, José Rizal. In Annette Hug's novel, Rizal is diving into a solitary struggle with words. He is in foreign lands and lost between various languages. The waitress in the Biergarten teaches him another one, her dialect. Rizal transposes the struggle of the Swiss against a tyrant of the Habsburg king into the circumstances of the colonized islands of his home country. He translates a Swiss story from the distant past into his Filipino present.

This ‘translation’ is an overseas travel from one culture into another one. ‘How can you stay sober if the parts of a sentence start to turn in your head’ and the syllables sprawl. As if he were caught in a fever, the tropics are mixed up with the alps, Küssnacht becomes Kalamba, (…) Muslims raid the cost, the oath on Rütli is sworn in onomatopoetic rhyme, the litany of women sung in Homeric verse.

(…) In this refreshingly eccentric reminder of Tell's relevance for our present days, we find a eulogy to the wealth of a culture knowing how to live well – maybe better – before the Spaniards arrived.”


Hans Christoph Buch in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, on June 2, 2016, writes the following: 

“In the work of [the linguist Wilhelm von] Humboldt, Rizal encountered the idea of the Tagalog verb being an ‘artwork’ created in an unlikely place, ‘where the old Javanese trade routes fizzled out, where there was nothing but wooden huts, no temple on seven thousand islands.’ 

The writer [Rizal] turned to his distant homeland in many ways. Parallel to his work on the novel “Noli Me Tangere” which unmasked the Spanish colonial regime, Rizal translated William Tell by Schiller into Tagalog, thereby liberating the revolutionary potential of a play that had been relegated to the junk room of feudalism. In the Philippines, it was of explosive force – not just because there were many mountains clothed in mist there, too. 

A cultural artefact almost fallen into oblivion is acquiring new relevance in a distant context. We are led to comprehend this process in Hug's book which isn't a sociological study or historical documentary but a novel cleverly constructed and written in an exciting style, combining vividness with erudition without ever showing off the author's knowledge.” 


Zürich, June 30, 2016