Literary Treasure: Nolledo’s “But for the Lovers” Is Now Back In The Spotlight
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Literary Treasure: Nolledo’s “But for the Lovers” Is Now Back In The Spotlight

New publisher Exploding Galaxies brings back an out-of-print literary masterpiece.

Some years back, Mara Coson discovered But for the Lovers, a unicorn among Philippine novels, while browsing through the catalog of Dalkey Archive, a press that publishes literature from around the world. The author, Wilfrido D. Nolledo, was far from unknown in his home country and in fact was idolized by many Filipino writers who came of age in the ‘60s. Literature students who were required to read his work had to pass around photocopies of the novel because actual copies of the book were few and far between.

“Before then, I’d only encountered his writing in old copies of the Philippines Free Press,” Mara says. “It’s a book that, to my knowledge, has never been made widely available here. And that’s why not many more people have read it. And this book is a masterpiece by any standard. But for the Lovers has always needed to be published here, to meet its great audience, even if fifty years later.”

This month, Mara announced the launch of Exploding Galaxies, a publishing house with the mission to bring back to print long-lost works of literature by Filipino authors. The name Exploding Galaxies is a tribute to the celebrated Filipino artist David Medalla, whose career was largely based in London but who spent his remaining years back home in Manila. 

Insurrecto author Gina Apostol, in her foreword to the reissue, states that But for the Lovers is the one book that she always recommends when asked for a recommendation. It’s a book she’s thoroughly familiar with, having read it many times as a student. Still, she managed to find new revelations upon rereading it as an adult novelist. Apostol writes that [Exploding Galaxies] is “rightly beginning with him.” 

On the other hand, I had never heard of Nolledo before and was tasked to write the introduction for the book, which is an introduction to Nolledo himself. I scoured the internet for everything on him, from literary critiques in defunct journals to archived blog posts, and reached out to people who knew him personally, like Krip Yuson and the Nolledo family. What emerged was a portrait of an artist as a brilliant young writer, an émigré amid the alien corn, a California retiree on the verge of finishing his final novel, but also a father and husband who put his family first.

Wilfrido D. Nolledo (b. 1933) was a fictionist with a cult following and a staff writer at the Philippine Free Press, where he worked alongside Nick Joaquin, Greg Brillantes, and Pete Lacaba. In 1966, he was invited to attend the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was where he completed his novel about the Philippines. An editor at Dutton & Co. fell in love with the manuscript and had the hardbound first edition published in 1970. In the US, it was received with reviews that declared it compelling yet strange. The New York Times called it an “unusual ferment of fantasy and reality,” while Kirkus Reviews pronounced it a “garish tropical bouquet of horrors.” 

But for the Lovers is a galaxy of a novel that is explosive in its use of language. Nolledo detonates puns and fires off rounds of alliteration while weaving together a constellation of war-worn characters living in the nightmare of the Japanese-occupied Philippines, leading up to the Battle of Manila in 1945. “Philippine baroque at its most outrageous,” claimed Nick Joaquin.

After Iowa, Nolledo returned to Manila where he worked as a ghostwriter for the President and a scriptwriter for Filipino movies (including a few bold ones) while continuing to win awards for his fiction. Eventually disillusioned with life in the Philippines, the Nolledo family packed up their things and returned to the US in 1989, this time for good. 

But his first novel But for the Lovers had been all but forgotten by the American reading public due to a lack of publicity and virtually no marketing. Nolledo’s former mentor from the Iowa workshop, Robert Coover, helped connect him to an editor at Dalkey Archive, an Illinois-based press specializing in out-of-print books and foreign language texts. The editor read only the first 40 pages of BFTL before offering to print a paperback edition in 1994.

Which brings us to the 2020s. Mara entered into agreements with the author’s estate and with Dalkey Archive to bring But for the Lovers to the Philippines. The editing process itself was not without its challenges, given Nolledo’s way with words. Describes Sam Marcelo, managing editor of Exploding Galaxies, “Nolledo, who passed away in 2004, was a stylist, a practitioner of verbal pyrotechnics. But for the Lovers is bursting with wordplay. And there were moments where we wished we could have queried him and asked him what his intent was.”

There was also a lot of discussion over chapter 35, which contains a section consisting of two interwoven timelines set alternately in Roman type and italic type. “Because we couldn’t ask Nolledo if the line breaks were inviolable, our designer, Miguel Mari, had to figure out how to preserve the original cuts and, at the same time, maintain the overall integrity of this edition’s design,” Sam says. “It took several tries, but we got there. On the editorial side, our marching orders were clear: Honor and respect Nolledo’s original text. Do no harm to this absolute banger of a masterpiece.”

Over 50 years later, the novel has aged like a fine rice wine. Don Jaucian, the series editor, shares his thoughts on how he thinks today’s readers will receive the work, relating how Filipinos on BookTok are searching for books that are part of the Filipino “canon,” essential books that they should be reading, especially now that Rizal is once again enjoying the spotlight thanks to the TV drama series Maria Clara at Ibarra.  

“A modern spotlight on a book will always shed new light for readers, not just because they are part of the supposed ‘canon’ of Philippine literature,” Don says. “Books like Amado V. Hernandez’ Mga Ibong Mandaragit, which was recently translated to English, or But for the Lovers will always find their audience when publishers trust that the audience is hungry for books that will nourish their interest and longing for books that are closer to home and will enrich their understanding of history and, in a way, the history of Philippine literature.”

Some readers might find Nolledo’s writing infuriating (I am of that half of the population that likes to have pun). But But for the Lovers is not merely an exercise in linguistic wizardry—it is, at its heart, an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial piece of art that isn’t afraid to sink deep into the pain and terror of national trauma. It’s a terrific, horrific read that will find its place in history as it finally comes home.

But for the Lovers” will be published on June 10. You can purchase copies from www.explodinggalaxies.com, Fully Booked, National Bookstore, Mt. Cloud Bookshop, and more. 

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