17 September 2023

But for the lovers of books


"The danger of making a list," said Borges, "is that the omissions stand out and that people think of you as being insensitive." For every list of best books, a counter-list could be countered. To which another more supposedly progressive and radical list could be put forward. Ad infinitum. The argument would never be settled. So we should just continue reading and sampling books until we encounter something, a work so profound and mind-shattering it would render the act of list-making pointless. A book just landed on your desk and it shattered your preconceived notions of what "best" or "worthy" or <insert adjective> is.

Eight years ago I posted a list of my personal best 20th century Philippines novels. Looking at this list now after having read half of the books and sampled three, I could not help but be bothered with some of my choices. It was not the omissions that stood out; a couple of novels in the list did not belong there. I was tempted to produce a counter-list to my own list. (My new list will have to drop the novels by Edith L. Tiempo and Timothy Mo. I want to replace them with Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn and Bibliolepsy by Gina Apostol. And I will have to rethink the ranking although the top of the list remains top.)

But for the Lovers by Wilfrido D. Nolledo topped my list of the best Philippine novel of the previous century. Eight years after reading the novel, I'm still convinced it deserved that position. I posted something about the novel here

By the end of 2015, I included But for the Lovers in an obligatory and anticlimactic best of the year list. I still stood by my fanboy twaddle on the book:

I probably have not read a finer Philippine novel in English in But for the Lovers by Wilfrido D. Nolledo. First published in 1970, it became extinct until miraculously resurrected in 1994 by Dalkey Archive Press. It was a fountainhead of creativity ... Surreal and savage scenes were interspersed with scenes of great hilarity and profundity. The large, multi-national cast of characters floated in a state of dreaming, half-waking, or in-between. The wartime set-pieces unravelled in magical fashion. It's a powerful work of postcolonial perversity. Hyperbole does not give it justice.

The Philippine literary event of the year was of course the first Philippine edition of But for the Lovers. Exploding Galaxies, a new publisher in the country, made the radical decision to select Nolledo's novel for its first publishing venture. I almost envy readers who will discover Nolledo's prose for the first time.

That it took more than 50 years for this novel to appear in the home country of its author said a lot about the myopia of the Philippine literary establishment. But for Exploding Galaxies, the novel would have remained a largely underappreciated cult book, under the radar of potential readers in Filipinas. And just look at that elegant, simple, text-based cover they chose for the new edition, eclipsing the ghastly Dalkey Archive cover (and the original 1970 Dutton cover) by a light-year. Respect! I could not wait what neglected supernova book Exploding Galaxies will bring next to the market. How could they top Nolledo's masterpiece as inaugural book?