The importance of ‘Ninay,’ the first Filipino novel 2
One might say Paterno’s novel offers the first example of woman empowerment in Filipino literature. Photo courtesy of Leon Gallery

This ‘forgotten’ romance is actually the first Filipino novel, not Rizal’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’

On the occasion of a landmark auction of Don Pedro Paterno’s works and belongings, we look back on some of his firsts
ANCX Staff | Aug 16 2022

You may think the first Filipino novel is Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” but it’s not: it’s Don Padre Paterno’s “Ninay”—so stated a recent Facebook post by the historian Ambeth Ocampo. The Rizal scholar confessed that he’s long searched for a copy of Paterno’s book—which was published in Madrid in 1885 while the “Noli” came out two years later, in Berlin in 1887. 

“In my decades of collecting rare Filipiniana ‘Ninay’ has always eluded me and I have always wanted a copy as a historical curiosity,” Ocampo wrote. 

La Antigua Civilización Tagalog and Ninay
"La Antigua Civilización Tagalog" and "Ninay," both by Don Pedro Paterno, are the first Filipino history book written by a Filipino and the first Filipino novel, respectively.

Who is Ninay? 

Paterno’s novel tells the love story between Ninay, or Antonina Milo y Buisan, a wealthy heiress, and Carlos Mabagsic, a man wrongly accused of rebellion. Paterno set their romance against the Catholic ritual of the “pasiyam,” the nine-day novena for the recently deceased. After being afflicted with cholera, Ninay passed away heartbroken following her separation from her beloved Carlos. 

One might say Paterno’s novel offers the first example of woman empowerment in Filipino literature. “Ninay is a capable and astute daughter of a wealthy, cultivated family, very much like the Paternos which were dominated by strong women,” explains Jaime Ponce de Leon, León Gallery director. “Rizal’s novel, on the other hand, portrayed the Filipina woman as ‘Maria Clara’, which to this day is the cliché for the submissive female. By contrast, Rizal’s lead characters were all men such as Ibarra, Elias, and later Simoun.”

Having studied the novel, Jean Marie Yap Paterno and Miguel Roces Paterno, in their book  “By Their Deeds: The Paternos of the Spanish Era,” says the “Ninay” author took details and inspiration from the very wealthy and influential Paterno family’s experiences—their way of life, their ways in business, even in the homes they built and inhabited. Clearly, Pedro Paterno believed in that oft-repeated advice to writers: “Write what you know.” 

La Antigua Civilización Tagalog
La Antigua Civilización Tagalog was important to Don Pedro Paterno since he was a direct descendant of Rajah Soliman. The title page shows the Paterno coat of arms he designed.

Xiao Chua describes Pedro Paterno as “a renaissance man just like Rizal after him—a poet, scholar, lawyer and an activist who knows the ins and outs of cosmopolitan Spanish society.” Commenting on “Ninay,” Chua says that while the book is soft on criticizing the Spanish regime, it is strong in its romantic portrayal of Philippine life.

It’s also not wanting in “plot twists which led to the personal tragedies of the protagonists” and which seem “a foreboding of the many deaths that also happened in Rizal’s El Filibusterismo and mirroring the many Filipino soap operas of the television and Netflix age.” 

Being the first Filipino novel, it’s just but natural that it’s attracted scholars to consider it’s importance. Adam Lifshey of Georgetown University calls it a “landmark text,” being “the first or inaugural Asian novel written in the Spanish language.” 

The novel “paved the way for the ‘Noli’ by initiating the novel, as a safe literary medium for providing a window on a colonial society,” wrote Dr. Portia Reyes, author of Panahon at Pagsasalaysay ni Pedro Paterno, 1858-1911: Isang Pag-aaral sa Intelektwalismo

Meanwhile, according to Atty. Dominador Buhain in his A History of Publishing in the Philippines—“Being the first Filipino novel, ‘Ninay’ marked the beginning of the awakening of national consciousness among the Filipino intelligentsia.”

“The novel is not to my liking, and I imagine that after reading it, Rizal didn't waste time criticizing it,” wrote Ocampo on his Facebook timeline. “Instead, Rizal decided to show Paterno what a novel is all about and wrote the ‘Noli.’ One could then say that Paterno's ‘Ninay’ inspired Rizal's ‘Noli.’”

Paintings and objects in Don Pedro Paterno’s collection
Paintings and objects in Don Pedro Paterno’s collection appear in this image of the Philippine Pavilion at the 1893 Expo in Madrid. Photo courtesy of Leon Gallery

Up for auction 

“Ninay” is just one among a record number of ‘firsts’ that fill the forthcoming ‘Ilustrado Trove’ exhibit and auction at León Gallery this coming Saturday, August 20th, at Eurovilla I, Legazpi Street, Legazpi Village. (Previews are ongoing until Friday, August 19). Apart from a first edition copy of the novel, the trove includes paintings, sculptures, other rare books and photographs, silver and gold sets, richly embroidered piña fabric and ephemera, pierced nautilus shells, and hundreds of historical documents and letters. All these from the collection of Don Pedro Paterno.

Apart from writing the first Filipino novel, Paterno also holds the distinction of being the first Filipino to write a book on Philippine history. “There were many history books about the Philippines at that time to be sure,” says Ponce de Leon, “but they were written by Italians such as Pigafetta and Spaniards like Antonio Morga. Paterno was therefore the first to write our own history from our perspective. It’s hard to imagine a day and age when foreigners were writing about what we were like — and not Filipinos. But as late as 1887, that was the case.” 

The title of the first Filipino history book is “La Antigua Civilizacion Tagalog” and was written as a companion volume to the landmark Exposition of the Philippine Islands in 1887 which Paterno had a hand in producing for the Spanish crown in Madrid.

Sampaguitas by Don Pedro Paternofy
"Sampaguitas" by Don Pedro Paterno would be the first poetry book by a Filipino to be published in Spain.

“In fact many of the items on exhibit and at auction come from that Expo — which is in itself a first of its kind in the world,” offered Ponce de Leon.

There is a kilometric list of firsts among the books alone in this landmark auction of Paterno’s works and belongings. Another highlight is a copy of his “Sampaguitas,” the first book of Filipino poetry written by a Filipino and published in Spain. 

The book would eventually be published in several editions. Accompanying it in the show is a fetching sculpture by Rosendo Martinez, titled La Sampaguita; a nod to Paterno’s obsession to the Philippines’ national flower.

Ponce de Leon is quite understandably very pleased that his León Gallery has the honor of showcasing this historically important collection from Paterno. “It is also the first of its kind in its comprehensiveness and impeccable provenance,” he said. “We invite collectors — seasoned or new — as well as anyone who would like to see a glimpse of the dawning of Filipino literature and culture to come experience this trove.”

 Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery