Friday, 8 July 2016

But For the Lovers

But For the Lovers - Wilrido D. Nolledo
(Foreword by Robert Coover)
"You never actually bury a volcano. There's always a resurrection."

Last year I posed a question to Rise, meister of the wonderful in lieu of a field guide blog. What book by a Philippine author would he recommend? This was the book and you can read his better informed blog by clicking the link to his blog. it is a while since I read it and I could easily leave this patchy, unfinished post in my drafts folder but I have attempted to put some shape on it because I believe this novel deserves more attention. It deserves a better post but this, I hope, is better than nothing. I intend reading it again at some point in the future and maybe I can make a more coherent and considered case then.

Barring Rise's introduction this is not a novel or writer that I have encountered anywhere else, an obscurity that seems thoroughly undeserved and unfortunate. This is a sprawling; energetic; humourous; mysterious; sometime brutal; poetic book that brought to mind Kenzaburo Õe, Gravity's Rainbow, Juan Carlos Onetti and Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, just for starters. And I haven't come across so much shapeshifting since reading Asturias, especially in the poetic, dreamlike opening section.
"Demented in the marshes in the moonlight, he thought he saw a deer and straddled it. It was a girl wearing an army trench coat.
She howled.
He climbed an acacia tree to seek safety from his dreams.
Midnight. He felt her tugging at his shoes. 
Centipede! Centipede! she shrieked.
They grappled with a beastie. Pulling out the bolo from the knapsack, he started to slash, slash, slash in the thicket. Chuckling he dropped the blade and examined: the bulk of a man. An arm lay unsocketed. He grabbed it and flogged the perforated body: the solar plexus, the vertebra, the collarbone.
Wake up! he ordered.
No comment.
He towed it to the river, genuflected, and commended  it to the brine.
In the morning, while he was watching the girl disrobe, the corpse swam to the surface like a crocodile. He hauled it in and kindled a fire around it.
You can get up now, he said cheerfully.
Still the carcass demurred."

This section is quite different to the rest of the novel. It acts as a kind of febrile presentiment of the novel's action, suggestive of fever dreams of the characters. Sometimes it is difficult to pin down but I found that it worked best if I just followed wherever it seemed to lead. And all roads lead to war:
"What year is it?"
"Nine-Teen-For-Ti-Two," she answered loftily.
"Then we are at war...."
"War hissed grotesquely in the stratosphere, rumbled in the creeping gullets; not the burp of infiltrators, nor thunder (The Bomb would be heard later), neither lightning: but the crackling of the bush, the cackling in the canyons, and the Apocalypse coming into its houri.""

It  is clear that Nolledo sees how war fractures society, buildings, families, neighbourhoods and minds, amoung other things.

We are then introduced to the first of the characters, Hidalgo, an old Spaniard removing his clown makeup in "a closet' while outside people are "hollering for him like a coolie". He has clearly fallen from what he once was but keeps a lid on his pride - "The poorhouse was full of proud Castilians who'd talked back to their bosses." There is an air raid happening and "Manila trembled in his old Spanish bones."

He finds it hard to remove the clown make up, and underneath it lies his age - "Santa Maria, how ancient he was!" The teardrops are the hardest to remove, it is almost as if he is turning into a clown. He has accelerated his act to escape the roughnecks who are only there for the striptease and not the audience of  children he had expected: "Misinformation had matured into menace, a beehive of it" and he has withdrawn "like a blind torero gored by a blind bull". Hidalgo's thoughts, his surroundings and the background noise create an overflowing impressionistic biography of the ageing clown, once "a prewar hero in the provinces of the Philippines". Before leaving the 'dressing room' for what he thinks amy be the last time he pays his respects at the "altar to his art": "In the name of the Father (kissing talismanic vestments), and of the Son (blessing a faded photo of Chaplin), and of the Holy Ghost (genuflecting before W.C. Fields' unsmiling visage in a gilded frame), Amen, he'd severed the umbilical."

He exhales into a Manila over which his imagination tries to pull a veil of nostalgia: "By refusing to acknowledge its eyesores, por ejemplo, those dingy restaurants, their raucous clientele, would he not, perhaps by indirection, retain that part of Manila which he'd helped forge out of a pagan wilderness?"

Hidalgo is pulled forcibly into the present by a meeting with a girl:
"Like him, she had been walking aimlessly. Dark-eyed, delicate of bone, a storm had combed her hair. Certainly she had not eaten, for how long, her blank gaze enumerated calendars beyond human reckoning."
"'Who are you?' she asked.
And overhead, the bombers had come again....
Gravely: 'I am a clown and I'm going home to die.'
... All traffic had stopped, they were rushing to shelters....
Holding out her hand: 'Are you going to save me?'
...The city shook, women screamed...."
She is being followed by a Japanese officer of the occupying force while the city is being bombed by the US liberating force. Hidalgo gives in to a romantic fantasy and takes her home.

Home is room thirteen in Ojos Verdes, a dingy boarding house overseen by the huge, sexually rapacious landlady Tira Colombo ("her bulbous nose could sniff out a man's genitals in a suit of armour") and room thirteen, which Hidalgo already shares with young street urchin; Hidalgo's "muchacho", Molave Amoran, whose thieving somehow keeps bodies and souls together and the rent paid. ("One day soon, my Barabbas, with those itchy claws of yours, you will pick the grass clean from the mound, the honey from the bees, the saints from the Bible.") Paying the rent means that Hidalgo does not have to pay Tira in kind, a form of payment she takes more pleasure in than money, when the payee meets her high standards, and she has high hopes of Hidalgo.

Tira has some mercy, though, and she allows the girl to stay in room thirteen after listening to her tale. "Professional tragedians had milked Tira Colombo dry with similar narratives. The Pauper Orthodoxy, she'd gathered, was founded on compulsive storytelling, the legitimacy of which was corroborated by the number of breadlines in Manila."

Other characters include the prisoner Vanoye, who is to Amoran "a poet with a golden tongue." He takes the girl to hear him speak: "Listen to Vanoye. They hate him. They steal his food and plant horse manure in his feed can, but they listen to him." Vanoye  is like a preacher, using religious imagery and speaking in a code that carries intimations of the coming American invasion.

Captain Jonas Winters is a harbinger of that invasion, flying low over the bay and downing Japanese planes and destroying gun placements and hypnotising the inhabitants: "For now there was only this divine madman in the aluminium chariot." Finally hit  "he drifted, drifted, drifted in the sky, thinking how very close holocaust was to heaven..." Downed, he becomes a sort of relic, carried by the resistance on a stretcher which "no longer bore a man, but a mandate-the future of mankind."

Japanese officers, resistance fighters, other residences of Tira Colombo's house all play a part in this poetic tapestry, pulsing with a living, somewhat unstable language which seems born of the American bombs that tear through the Spanish, Philipino and Japanese areas mixing all together and creating strange constellations of identity. "'I wonder what they are eating in America,' somebody would say. 'Hot dog! Hot dog!' chorused the skinny children. 'Are they bombing Tokyo now?' another asked. 'Night and day, day and night!' screeched the skinny children."

Nolledo is not afraid to echo the classics and surely he is here inverting Joyce: "No, no, no and no again for the thousand terrifying terrified others who would ask each other please please to do it, and no, please, no ever and ever again no, for all the rabid roaming lovers waiting for the anguish, for the night, for the fireflies, so they could say no, no, no, upon their self-destructing sex . . . and no, and no, and no again no. . . ."

But For the Lovers has a large sprawling cast of characters; sexual obsession; brutality; religion; beauty; the horror of war; low comedy and high seriousness. The language is enlivened by the use of slang, tagalog and Spanish. Indeed, it has much to say on the politics and evolving history of identity. This is a novel that deserves wider recognition and more readers. Published in 1970 to some high praise (Robert Coover writes a fanboy's foreword in the Dalkey Archive edition I have) but general silence. I would not be surprised to hear that Thomas Pynchon read it and that it influenced the WW2 novel he was writing at the time. There is an ecstatic yearning for the bombs to fall that will be echoed in the later, much garlanded novel. Nolledo couldn't even find a publisher for three later novels, or so I read at Rise's post. I hope they find a publisher soon. Even if they are little more than glosses to this they will be of interest.

I will finish with a further quote, one which may give us a little picture of Nolledo at work and a blueprint for the novel itself:
"So they left him alone at last - for lost. And perhaps he was. For closeted in his modest library, removed from his own squalling children, a bed away form his ailing Victoria, Placid Rey, in an attempt to exorcise his current fixation, plunged furiously into his journal on Ojos Verdes. On ruled, yellow tablet paper, with a jug of tea and no tobacco, he wrote his blood pressure high and low with all the figures of speech at his command; carving curlicues out of a vernacular that defied his salutations, his emendations, his immolations; recanting, reviling, demythologising a legato of facts; reconstructing with vicarious military acumen every facet that had engendered and ennobled Intramural - all with a historian's unjaundiced eye. ..."


  1. This post isn't only better than nothing. It is everything for a book neglected and forgotten. You're one of the handful who made a substantial commentary to this "Joycean" book. It's not even discussed here in its subject country. I think you've provided an excellent outline of the characters and its signal elements: language, poetry, wartime dreams, war allegory, chaos, absurdity, and excess. A book to read once again, I agree.

    1. Thanks Rise. Hope it inspires even a small ripple effect. The book deserves it.

  2. Thanks Seamus for this very thorough critique--one of a few. Rise is right. (No pun intended.) No prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown

    1. You're welcome. Discovering the largely undiscovered is one of the joys of reading.