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The novel as revenant

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published May 22, 2023 5:00 am

It’s such welcome news that the new publishing venture Exploding Galaxies has just released the first Philippine edition of Wilfrido D. Nolledo’s novel, But for the Lovers, long considered a lost classic since it first appeared in the US in 1970.

“He was beginning to eat flowers and the crescent moon was in his eyes when he awoke again.”

That’s how it starts, with Nolledo’s characteristic ushering of his characters, in a lyrical style that young writers in the 1960s like me found intoxicating—with its “riveting, fresh, adroit articulation,” as I had written in the past.

As this piece will be as much about the novel’s passage through the travails of publishing, from curious acceptance to near oblivion, I will have to quote from many sources, starting with the new publisher’s press release.

Wilfrido D. Nolledo

“In Lovers, Hidalgo de Anuncio, a jaded vaudevillian besotted with Hispanic nostalgia, brings home to Ojos Verdes a girl lost in the streets of Japanese-occupied Manila. With his attendant Molave Amoran—wistful guitarist and cunning thief—the payaso fondly guides his ingénue through a war-torn universe as perplexing as it is marvelous. With unsparing literary panache, this novel marries delirious lyricism and startling grotesqueries as it commemorates those who had once dared to love in a dying city.”

As Intro writer Audrey Carpio retells it, the cult following for this book waxed and waned through errant times.

But for the Lovers has been called an undiscovered masterpiece, a great book unjustly unread, undeservedly obscure, and remarkably underground. It was conceived in the Philippines, midwifed in Iowa, and birthed in New York in the year 1970, blazing brightly for a second before quietly falling away. (Another US publisher reprinted it 24 years later.) Another 29 years will pass before it is reissued, this time in the Philippines, birthplace of the author, the setting and the burning heart of the novel, and the country where its absence is felt the most.”

Random House editor Hal Scharlatt saw to its first publication when he was appointed editor-in-chief at E.P. Dutton. Among the intriguing reviews was Publishers Weekly’s: “This is a strange, compelling book that has the tortuous complexity and is fraught with the labyrinthine terrors of a dream.” Scharlatt’s demise in 1974 relegated the book to the oblivion bin.

Nolledo’s friend Robert Coover in Iowa pushed to have it republished, eventually as a paperback in 1994 by Dalkey Archive, a small press that favored “experimental works that commercial publishers wouldn’t touch.” From Coover’s Foreword: “(A) fearless—and fearsome—book, its author’s eyes wide open and imagination at full throttle, a genuine masterpiece...”

Carpio adds: “It is the edition that is now required reading in a few Philippine literature courses here and in North America, yet practically impossible to find in bookstores.” Comes Exploding Galaxies to the rescue, after nearly three decades, for the third edition.

No finer novelist could have been chosen to write the Foreword than Gina Apostol, who hasn’t only read BFTL repeatedly, but with astute appreciation. Championing Nolledo’s language, she also makes a case for the Filipino writer’s ironic choice of English.

“The novel follows the protagonist trio—the virgin, the thief, and the clown—in a surreal landscape that moves from tropical landscape to urban rooming house to parachute landing in mountain fasts, threaded only, it seems, by language: the highjinks of Nolledo’s English, the book’s modernist omniscience.

“For a Filipino novelist writing in English, language is always not just a tool but the weapon. Like Joyce, an avatar of the postcolonial artist, Nolledo confronts the power and potential and trap of English by brandishing and claiming it as he desires but, above all, for his immodest purposes. And for a Filipino novelist, there is no escape from the purpose of English—the purpose, every time we write, is subversive.

“… The Filipino writing in English is wrenched from the unease of her choice by history. History has handed her a bitter tool, and it is ineluctably hers: this tongue gained from violence. One thing I read in Nolledo’s virtuosity is this: to merely wield language is his curse—his spell upon history—but his potent subversion for me is not in the brandishing of the weapon. I’d say that’s his joy. That’s why his title, for instance, comes from a poem disjunct from the novel’s frame. Nolledo, in this novel, is above all having an artist’s fun.”

Nick Joaquin had written: “BFTL is an outrageous book. It’s very funny and savage and grim and beautiful... The style is a sustained audacity.”

A sample:

“… Veiled but vibrant, she crossed among tippers and ticklers behind potted plants and terra cotta antiques, crunching peanut shells on a floor linoleumed with squashed flies, essence of mosquitoes and male droppings. Whiff of whiskey and turpentine tanged the dusty air. A limpid tea house moon hung on a cyclorama while outside the real one was a crescent; the wind carried downtown sheen from España, where a deportee painted jonquils in his sleep, to Chinatown, where everybody dreamed the Year of the Tiger had come.”

Here’s another taste of Nolledo’s prose:

“And for whom did she exist, to whom would she belong? … This sultana of and subject to inquisition—her innocence decreed it; her nom de plume deflected it—she would hound Manila, followed by Molave: durable in diminuendo, dispersing, describing her beauty with patronymic hands that still touched the fingertips of gloaming lamented clowns, even if everybody else only spoke, never saw or heard, therefore never understood the loneliness of the cicadas. As long as she was a dryad among demons on pontoon bridges, as long as she was a decibel in the drum roll of the U.S. Cavalry, as long as she was a cricket in the crusts of Intramuros, as long as she was a cedilla in Placido Rey’s anguished cantatas—and as long as she was Mandarin eyes and Malayan hair among benzedrine masks and blond cornucopia, he would—hopefully— never again (but never) breathe her name to another living soul.”

Parenthetical in every page, packing in alliterations and puns, sly humor and an au courant’s procession of historical and literary memories, whipping in Tagalog, Spanish and Japanese, Nolledo is a Fellini of flamboyant fecundity, fleshing up his narratives with fey characters and dream-like filigree. Will today’s reader prize what Joaquin lauded as baroque story-telling? Or maybe argue that parading otherworldly characters is already loading the dice for romantic appeal? Would deviant structure be subject to cancel culture? But no, never Nolledo’s substance, forever a flower to be savored. 

Exploding Galaxies must be commended for its courage to bring lost classics of Filipino writing back into print and in active circulation. Publisher Mara Coson plans to publish two to four books each year. Pre-orders for BFTL may be arranged through editor Don Jaucian at [email protected].