'Under Three Flags' is that rarest of beasts - soaked in history and brimming with human interest, it not only takes anarchism seriously but also focuses its attention far from the usual narratives.
Instead, Anderson devotes himself to exploring the personalities and politics of two 'Filipino' (in as far as they thought of themselves in those terms) intellectuals and rebels - the writer José Rizal, later canonised as 'the Father of the Nation', and the lesser known Isabelo de los Reyes, an 'indigenous' ethnologist and contemporary. The life of each is chartered in its relation to growing anti-colonial nationalism, international anarchism, and the often breathtaking ways in which their trajectories crossed with those of other 19th century greats, whether the well-known (Émile Zola, J-K Huysmans, José Marti) or the now obscure (Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, Ramón Sempau).
Attention has been drawn to the way in which this compelling book illuminates globalization before 'Globalization' - those international flows of revolutionary ideas and revolutionary people that fermented the anti-colonial imagination. And the complex formation of the international state system is certainly brought vividly to life. In Anderson's capable hands, the connections between the torture dungeons of Montjuich in Barcelona and colonial counter-insurgencies in the colonial peripheries could hardly be doubted. Nor could one think that the bohemian rebelliousness of Parisian artists and writers had no impact beyond their intellectual ghettos.
The main cast are stunningly multi-lingual, and Anderson's decision to reproduce their communications in the original languages along with the translations makes that all the more real, even if most of it passes you by (as it did with me). Indeed, by the end of the book I was starting to think of Anderson himself as a player in his own drama, so adept is he with the subtleties of fin de siecle life in Manila, Paris and Madrid.
Yet the representatives of the metropole never take centre place. They shape and inspire Rizal and de los Reyes but are hardly the cause of insurrections in Cuba and the Philippines. If anything, the better known historical figures are distant and occasionally hostile to the various rebellions. The local heroes are themselves astounding, each producing hugely ambitious and influential works in their early 20s, a pattern that seems consistently repeated among many of the progressive intellectuals of the time. The cumulative effect of all this talent and passion, not to mention the thick historical details, can be bewildering at times, but in the best of ways. Anderson certainly does assume a solid base of knowledge among his readers, but this is challenging more than arrogant. Not a perfect book (Rizal gets too much attention and I, for one, would have appreciated a dash more intellectual history, both in terms of colonialism and its attendant anarchisms) but these are minor quibbles with an otherwise glorious contribution to the history and politics of recent world orders.
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