THE first novel published in the Philippines was a translation from the Greek titled Historia Magistral de los Santos Anacoretas Barlaam y Josafat (Edifying story of the hermit saints Barlaam and Iosaphat), the work of the Dominican friar Baltasar de Santa Cruz. A copy of this rare work, published in 1692, can be found at the library of the University of Santo Tomas. This novel was translated into Tagalog by the Jesuit Antonio de Borja — strictly the first work of fiction ever published in Tagalog — in 1712, of which only one known copy is found in the British Library. It is very likely that this volume was one of the books that the English stole from the Convent of San Agustín during their short and destructive stay in Manila. Fortunately, the copy is in good condition and was recently edited by Virgilio Almario for the Ateneo University Press. These two works are of great importance in the development of the first literary culture in the Philippines, a culture that was inevitably mediated by religious orders.

However, the first novel ever written by a Filipino was Nínay. Costumbres Filipinas (Nínay. Philippine customs) by Pedro Paterno. It was published in Madrid in 1885, and a copy of this rare novel will be auctioned this Saturday at the León Art Gallery Auction House, starting at a modest price: P20,000. I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy for just $90 five years ago, bought from an American bookseller who probably didn't know the true value of what he was selling.

Certainly, the fate of this novel could not be more fateful: first of all, it was a romantic novel that idealized the society and landscape of the Philippines in an extreme way. From a literary point of view, it was a very well written work, but aesthetically out of date, since by 1885 what was already prevailing then, since Balzac, was realism. But we should not blame him: what references could Pedro Paterno have had then? Literally speaking, he had no parents and was inaugurating a tradition. Second, the novel had numerous footnotes, and even a bibliography. This curious insertion was an originality that was decades ahead of a practice — the insertion of footnotes — that became extensive in the postmodern novel since the 1980s and 1990s. However, Paterno's intention was not in any way to play with the horizon of expectations of the reader — am I reading a novel, an essay or an academic study? — but to clarify concepts and customs to the Spanish reader and present himself before the peninsular public as an expert in Philippine affairs. It could have been a great short-term decision for his literary and political career if the novel had had the impact he expected, but it did not. It was a literary and strategic error, because having been written for Spaniards, it lost the opportunity to become the foundational novel of Philippine literature. In 1907, without the explanatory explanations, an edition in Tagalog was published.

The first novel from each country fetches truly astronomical prices at auction, and this one should be no exception. However, there is an additional issue that harms Paterno enormously: the accusations that some Filipino historians — affected by a narrow and short-sighted sense of nationalism — have been making him a traitor and portraying him as unpatriotic. None of these accusations are true, and a review of his biography — as Resil Mojares has done in his superb Brains of the Nation (2006) — and of his works — which hardly anyone has read — would be enough to clear his name in Philippine historiography. Pedro Paterno was the first person who saw in literature a way to carry out a redefinition of national identity. His books, despite the many errors that they might contain, were the first serious attempt to do sociological science from a strictly local point of view. Philippine intellectual history from a Filipino perspective begins with him. A man of learning and undoubted talent, his loyalty was never to Spain or the United States, but to the Philippines, and if he mediated in the Biak-na-Bató Pact, he did so as a peacemaker to avoid a bloodbath, ignoring completely that the weight of Spain on the international scene was already almost nil. He was damaged in life by his personality: unconcerned about money, which he had in abundance, he sought recognition and awards, perhaps too eagerly.

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Finally, Nínay was undoubtedly the novel that inspired the Noli Me Tangere, published just two years later. The only person who has noted this debt was León María Guerrero in his biography of Rizal: "The parallel between the two plots is obvious: Berto is Elías in the Noli; Carlos, Ibarra; Ninay, Maria Clara; Don Evaristo, Captain Tiago; the ruin of Carlos, like that of Ibarra, is encompassed by a false denunciation of complicity in a rebellion; like María Clara, Nínay sacrifices her lover egged on by her father and goes into a convent, believing her lover dead." The bare plot of the Noli is, in fact, reminiscent of Nínay. If only for this reason, Nínay deserves a fairer place in the pantheon of national literature.