The novel opens with the steamship Tabo heading up the Pasig river on its way to La Laguna one December morning. Take note of the possible parallelism between the ship and the government ruling in the Philippines during Rizal’s time: full of hot air, tyrannical, pretentious.
We meet Doña Victorina, the only lady in the European group on the upper deck (guess who have to stay below deck). She is depicted as a foul-mouthed, extravagant, heavily made-up, disdainful, and insufferable Indio who tries to pass herself off as a European through her wigs and clothes. She is accompanied by her niece, the beautiful and rich Paulita Gomez. Doña Victorina is the wife of Don Tiburcio de Espadaña, who left her after many years of marriage and who was now hiding (maybe) in Laguna.
Among the other characters introduced are: Don Custodio, an official counsellor; Ben Zayb, an exceedingly intelligent (in his own mind) writer whose pseudonym is an anagram of the surname Ybañez; Father Irene, the canon; and the jeweller Simoun who sports long, white hair and a sparse black beard and who wears a pair of huge blue-tinted sunglasses (in the 1800s? Hmmm.). Anyway, Simoun’s great influence over His Excellency, the Capitan-General was known in Manila. Thus, people held him in high regard.
Discussing the issue of the lake and the slowness of ship travel were Ben Zayb, Padre Camorra, and Padre Salvi, a Franciscan. Simoun cuts in and offers a rather radical solution: dig a new river channel and close the Pasig even if it means destroying villages and committing people to forced and unpaid labor.
What follows is a debate between Simoun and Don Custodio on whether the indios were going to revolt or not. Padre Sibyla, a Dominican, was concerned that the people might rise up as before, but Simoun dismissed the possibility with a what are you friars for if the people can rise in revolt?
After Simoun left the fuming group, Don Custodio offers his own solution: Get people to raise ducks. Since ducks feed on snails, the people will help deepen the river as they will remove or dig up the sandbars which contain the snails. Doña Victorina wasn’t exactly fond of the idea since she considers balut (duck) eggs disgusting.
The reader’s attention is focused on two characters: Basilio, a student of medicine and Isagani, a poet from the Ateneo. Conversing with them is the rich Capitan Basilio.
The main point of discussion is the establishment of an academy for the teaching of Spanish.
While Capitan Basilio is convinced that such a school will never be set-up, Isagani expects to get the permit, courtesy of Father Irene. Father Sibyla is also against this, which is why Father Irene is on his way to Los Baños to see the Governor General.
To support the funding of the project, every student was asked to contribute fifteen centavos. Even the professors offered to help (half were Filipinos and half were Spaniards from Spain). The building itself will be one of the houses of the wealthy Makaraig.
(Note: Some people in Spain were in favor of teaching Spanish to the Filipinos. Compare them with Spaniards based in the Philippines who did not want the Filipinos to learn their language.)
Isagani is in love with Paulita Gomez, but his uncle, Father Florentino is against it. Father Florentino would rather not go on deck because he might bump into Doña Victorina who might ask him about her husband, Don Tiburcio (who happens to be hiding in Father Florentino’s house).
Coming from the upper deck, Simoun finds Basilio who then introduces Isagani to him. Isagani takes offense when Simoun talks about the poverty in Basilio’s province. (Read their resulting argument about water and beer.)
After Simoun leaves, Basilio chastises Isagani for treating the jeweller that way. Basilio emphasizes Simoun’s position in society be calling him the Brown Cardinal, or Black Eminence of the Governor-General. This is in reference to His Grey...