25 September 2015

But for the Lovers

But for the Lovers (1970) by Wilfrido D. Nolledo (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994)

The postcolonial is perverse*, according to the Filipino critic J. Neil C. Garcia. But why stop there? The postcolonial is grotesque, is disgusting, is radical, is transgressive. The postcolonial is a product of colonial wars, of wars inglorious. It is blasphemous; it is bestial.

Just like But for the Lovers, the only full length novel published by Wilfrido D. Nolledo (1933-2004) in his lifetime. This novel blatantly wears the sleeve of postcoloniality and postmodernity. It is a (diffi)cult book. In Philippine novel writing, it is a milestone, deserving of the top spot in a list of the best Philippine novels in English published in the last hundred years.

He was beginning to eat flowers and the crescent moon was in his eyes when he awoke again. One night long ago when they had intercepted a code from the enemy on the shortwave and had not needed him anymore, they pulled out their tents, mantled him with leaves, and left him. They left him a rifle, a buri basket and a book of psalms, for the Major had decreed in defense of this murder: Let the little legionnaire lie here and die; it is written, it shall be read. But the boy went on sleeping and did not die and when he awakened it was to see (it was to find himself alone) a bird, a whitewinged maya dart in from the west, perhaps headed for the monsoon. Steadying the Springfield , he cocked the hammer with a quivering thumb, and waited. It flew away, whatever it was, and now he squinted up and remembered that it was the first time in a long spell he had seen the sky,and he thought: It is longer, lonelier and lovelier than any of my prayers. He sighted the nimbus—an eagle in captivity—and fired.

It is great because of its language, its unabashed poetic touches, network of allusions and alliterations, puns with punitive effects, and foreign words galore. In various linguistic registers and movements—mo (modernism) or po-mo or po-po (postmodern poetry, in prose)—it is in a league with the illustrious set of Ulyssi. Within a quota of one for every culture, hands down the Philippine Ulysses goes to But for the Lovers.

The basic story revolves around three spectral figures, all inhabitants of room 13 of Ojo Verdes boardinghouse. There is Hidalgo de Anuncio, the Spanish vaudeville/clown artist whose time is almost up, whose very name evoked the master of chivalry. There is Molave Amoran, the feral, resourceful youngster, a sturdy streetkid whose survival instincts come in handy in time of chaos. And there is the unnamed girl whose very silence bespeaks her being a symbol in a war that was fought on symbols.

The setting is Manila during the last interminable months of Japanese invasion right up to the immediate aftermath of the country's liberation. People are desperate, impatiently waiting for the return of the Americans to liberate the country and alleviate their suffering from hunger and destitution. P-38s are hovering above, bombing the city. Throughout the air raids and the looting, the beautiful girl sleeps. And during her waking hours, she is like a somnambulist. The war-torn reality has become a huge launch pad for her dreams, for Hidalgo's pining for the Spanish days of yore, and for Amoran's nocturnal adventures to fend food for the three of them. The three exist to wait for Rapture or whatever. In an apocalypsed landscape of ruins, some like Hidalgo cling to the former colonial past and Hispanic culture, knowing full well that their time is ticking out.

[Hidalgo] was the last flamboyant castilla de entresuelo. Today his sole anchorage was that sprawling colonial-style building across the street from Carmelo and Bauman's. Older than anything else in la ciudad, it'd preserved its ancient appurtenances: an azotea, shell windows, carved rejas, even its original embankment. Here resided the Del Rosario sisters, who had suffered the encroaching commercialization of their beloved street yet had steadfastly refused to bend to the cooings of merchants. Huge profit forecasts and storm warnings could not induce the Del Rosario sisters to consider leases and alterations. The hermetic pair invited no one inside their domains save a few "blood friends." For decades outsiders were curious about what the interior of the house was like. The original draftsman's plans of this relic had either been lost, burned, or, some believed, locked in the Del Rosario vaults for future perusal. Those who revered the lavish historicity of the house only from nostalgia did not know (or had forgotten with the passing of time) that inside were some twenty-four bedrooms, eroding furniture and life-size images of saints. Nor would strangers recollect that the Del Rosario sisters were the last of their line; they had no heirs but, according to popular legend again, had adopted some children. (And wasn't one of them a negrito?) The years had gravely altered the street, the city, the neighbors around them ... que va, the Del Rosario sisters remained unchanged with their house. Their withered palm branches at the eternally shut windows turned green again in honor of the seasons.

Hidalgo is nostalgic. He seeks refuge in old colonial mansion with two spinster sisters reminiscent of the Marasigan sisters in Nick Joaquín's famous play. The Hispanist is eulogizing the passage of an era, when the definitive break from Spanish as former colonials is almost assured, whatever the outcome of the war.

In addition to the triumvirate, the rich cast of characters include Vanoye, one-armed Portuguese POW and demagogue who was tortured by the Japanese in Fort Santiago and was one of the internees in the University of Santo Tomas; Tira Colombo, the thrice widowed matriarch and landlady of the apartment in Ojos Verdes, whose inhabitants provide the manifold strands to the story; three Japanese soldiers—the samurai Sergeant Yato, the poet Corporal Ito, and the weird old Major Shigura who stalked the girl at all times; Captain Jonas Winters, an American pilot who survived the crash of his air bomber plane; Tomasa Pompeyo (aka Tomodachi Toni) who owns a nightclub and whose husband was missing; and a bunch of other minor character studies whose colorful anecdotes provide a good dose of laughter amid the harsh perversity of the times.

As postcolonial novels go, this one is replete with questions and ideas about identity and cultural hybridity. The novel's hybridity in fact already oversells the idea. Hidalgo himself, the old peninsular at home in Manila, whose pan-identity ["an unleavened pan like him"] haunts him, is feeling his almost-anachronistic presence in a country colonized by American Hollywood.

But what finally opens up to the reader is the mosaic of guffaw-inducing set-pieces and a glimpse at the Manila second world war subculture. It is a period of waiting, waiting, and more waiting for Liberation (capital L). A time of torture and marriages (since life goes on), of mendicancy and endemic thievery. But most of all, a time of waiting, waiting, more waiting. The waiting took several forevers. Although there are some, like Tira Colombo, who never give a damn about the whole debacle. Pragmatism saves her from the boredom of waiting.

All that brouhaha around her did not bother Mrs. Colombo. To her, the Liberation [1945] meant not much more than an extra chupa of rice, perhaps some fresh eggs. Politics, government, religion—they were big, fat gobs of one rotten yolk to her. She would benefit not a single kusing from a change of venue; she would not profit from a shift in ideology. Acculturation was for those who did not have or did not cherish what they most privately had, which was identity. The landlady, even with half an ear cocked, with but bat eyes in the daylight, had long reached the conclusion that after Bienvenido Elan, her first husband, there could never be any new idea. History would pass (as indeed it had) over Mrs. Colombo like a tractor, and she would not notice, would not care. What she truly, incessantly lamented was the depletion of man, in whatever form or substance. To her way of thinking, war had been cruel only insofar as it had cauterized the vaginal life source, in its unabating diminution of the male. That cities were razed to the ground, the mothers were ravished in dark rooms, that babies perished for lack of milk only signified (to her) that men were killing each other senselessly, selfishly. No sect could be so sublime, no philosophy so enlightening, no administration so just that could ever again remedy the loss of essence. After the demise of Architect Elan (oh, Bienvenido!), her one last link to any branch of formal constructiveness, Mrs. Colombo just retired from ideas.

The novel gains its suspense from being in medias res. The language play and inventiveness save even the disgusting scenes of torture. The diversity of wartime voices provide a counterpoint to the wartime stupor. But for the lovers (but which lovers?), this would have been a mawkish drama of excess about a set of people forever chewing on the rumors of Liberation that as time goes by remains more and more like that, a remote possibility.

Nolledo's prose is a melting pot of variegated styles. The comedy and grotesquerie are of a piece. In prose "pulsing and polychromatic", in scenes that lapse into the territory of nightmares and dreams and trauma.

They resumed the journey with a melange of guavas and baked lizards. A python had coiled at their feet in an arbor and Quasimoto killed it with a single swipe of the bolo. Twice Alma boggled at a minaret swinging like a pendulum. They diverted her from wheezing showers, whooshing reeds, mildewed clotheslines with withering scarecrows, preening skulls and Halloween papayas. From a grotto, they espied a balloon in the clouds and below it was another boat, and they all knew that her suitors were not far behind. Invoking the prophets at that critical juncture and calling to the patron saint of navigation, Quasimoto steered away and the boat accosted a rainbow and they went loafing-loving-longing on the crest. They outwitted a flood to ransack an empty farmhouse where posters embossed in magenta proclaimed: "THE JAPANESE ARE COMING!" They also unearthed New Year hats, buntings, billfolds and tinfoil from a hope chest. Aron flung the Springfield away, drowned the toy forever in a well. Alma idled behind charred sugar cane and spidery stalks as the boy began to tell her she was beautiful. By sunup, they were blue and bold and blighted: they all had insomnia. They made a palatable salad but dared not eat it lest the sound of loud lettuce unleash the hounds of war. They bound their boat to the bougainvillea vines. When the boy sneezed, they lost it.

Quasimoto, Aron, and Alma are three figures within the dreamlike scene at novel's confused (confusing) prologue. They correspond to other (actual) characters inside (in) the novel. The shifting identities of the characters, of the "lovers" of the title, make for a dynamic deconstruction of purpose and meaning.

"The Spanish Novel in the Philippines will be commemorated in English. Everything else is posthumous", Hidalgo de Anuncio announces like a literary psychic. Nolledo's own may be that Spanish Novel in English. The fate of his three other (maybe more) complete novels was posthumous. Sangria Tomorrow; Vaya con Virgo (aka 21 de agosto); and Cassandra Pickett in the Wings. These apparently experimental novels from a neglected master of the perverse are waiting, waiting, and waiting.

* In the preface to his two-volume The Postcolonial Perverse: Critiques of Contemporary Philippine Culture, Garcia wrote: 'What is postcolonial is necessarily perverse, since perversion is the frustration of teleology and its requisite purity, the undermining of the normative and the narrative, the transitivity that troubles the supposedly pristine, eternal, and abiding. These are precisely what postcolonialism must imply, being that it is, among other things, the historically situated labor of arriving at a critical awareness of colonialism's fractured and translated (and therefore eminently appropriable) "nature."'


  1. Just found this while putting links into my Books of the Year post. Terrible to think of Nolledo's other novels being unpublished. Your out brought more of the book back to me and reminded me of my feeling that it would make for an interesting comparison with Gravity's Rainbow.

  2. I haven't read Gravity's Rainbow, or Pynchon, for that matter. Should really make for a good comparison as the two novels are contemporaneous (1970s). There's a reprint of Nolledo short stories by a local university press more than 10 years ago. Other than that he's practically absent in the bookstores and in literary discourse. A shame really.

  3. I have attempted a long after the fact posting on But for the Lovers - http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2016/07/but-for-lovers.html

  4. What a treat, Séamus! However belated, that is a fine review and assessment. You've not just taken the leap into Nolledo's dreamlike prose, you embodied it. I will come back to your review when I collect my thoughts.