Under Three Flags: Anarchism And The Anti-Colonial Imagination, by Benedict Anderson

The novelist who became the founding father of the Philippines
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The Independent Culture

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson traced the origins of nationalism in Spanish South America. The first nationalists, he argued, spoke for communities that had yet to be built - a formulation that neatly resolves the question of priority between posing political demands and building a collective identity. Moreover, the nationalist vision grew out of shared experience: of restricted career paths, in particular. Consciousness and campaigning, vision and career: Anderson's model of history is made up of pairings such as these.

Under Three Flags is a formidably erudite and beautifully illustrated study of the life and times of José Rizal, the revered founding-father of the Philippines. A constitutional activist who spent much of his life in Europe, Rizal was a hero to the Filipino independence movement. This was largely due to his novels, which offer a bizarre mixture of bejewelled prose, pointed satire, sensationalist plotting and intimations of anarchist revolution.

In exile, Rizal was seen as an extremist for his insistence on Filipino autonomy; returning home, he was outflanked by the radical Katipunan movement, which nevertheless made him its figurehead. He was executed in 1896 for his part in the Katipunan insurrection, which he had disowned; soon afterwards, its leader was killed by a rival, who later served in an American-led government. The Philippines was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898, only achieving lasting independence in 1946.

This is, Anderson stresses, a contribution to the history of "early globalisation". In Europe, exile communities plugged Rizal into an international network of radicals. The dying Spanish empire linked the Philippines with Cuba, where José Marti's war of independence began the year before the Katipunan uprising.

Commendably, Anderson doesn't contrast the Kati-punans' hopes disparagingly with the slow tread of history as usual. Instead, he demonstrates that French aesthetes and Russian nihilists, organisational slog and utopian dreams, all formed part of the same historical moment.

This book does triumphant justice to the multi-layered complexity of Rizal's world, but at a cost. Anderson sets a stiff pace; there are few concessions to readers wanting assumptions restated or conclusions underlined. The result is magnificent but overwhelming. Many historical works deserve abridgement; this one could benefit from dilution.