Friday, October 21, 2011


Reposting this article by Nick Joaquin in response to requests from FilAm Philippine Literature students for material on the late Ding Nolledo,


By Quijano de Manila (Nick Joaquin)

October 1970

A CULT among the young writers.of the country is Wilfrido Nolledo, who is to Philippine prose what Villa is to its verse.

If Villa has heightened the language of poetry to an almost angelic incandescence, Nolledo has deepened the language of fiction to a near-apocalyptic density. For both these magi, the medium is the message. A Villa poem itself informs the clairvoyance required to behold it; every story by Nolledo recreates a reader into its reader in the same way that not everyone could see a Picasso until the body of Picasso's work had developed in the public a new eye with which to view it. It sounds incredible now, but what have become the classic Hemingway stories were found unreadable by the editors he first sent them to. Nolledo underwent a similar experience. His prose was found dazzling all right—but what the hell was the guy saying?

An original from the start, a Melchizedek sprung from no ascertainable parentage, Nolledo has baffled with his labyrinths, where a Theseus may sense not one but a herd of minotaur: Joyce and jazz and basketball and the cinema Old Spain and the kanto-boy Manila... So one might begin to tag the influences.. Godard and Antonioni and Fellini and Bergman would have to be specified; Eliot, too, and the gothic Henry James; and the rituals of Philippine folk Catholicism. The prose will sometimes bellow with beer, though the references are to wine, Spanish or rice.

But what always results from all this is Nolledo, always peculiarly himself: a method in his madness, a cunning even in his most delirious dithyrambs. The Nolledo labyrinth is baroque, but at the heart of it is a coziness of open space where at a simple table sits a man with wife and children eating supper under the stars.

A local cult within a decade after he began writing, Nolledo has now, at 37, stepped before the international audience. Out this month in New York, published by E. P. Dutton & Company, is Nolledo’s first novel, "But For The Lovers," where the young magus of language has turned the Philippine war experience into a poem. It's a beautifully printed book, running to 316 pages, and it begins with a prologue that begins with a paragraph that begins with a sentence that are like no beginning you'd ever expect of a war novel.


"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 the murderer: 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 white-winged 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.

"Lord,” he said, “I am punching holes in your garret."

After that, one should quote the blurb on the book’s jacket:

"But For The Lovers marks the debut of a strongly original voice in contemporary fiction. This extraordinary novel is no less remarkable for the power and beauty of its' language than for the exotic and magical world it creates. Set in the Philippines during the Second World War, But For The Lovers depicts the survival of a group of Filipinos during the Japanese Occupation and American liberation.

"An old mail who used to wander the countryside entertaining children, a young girl raped by Japanese soldiers and a ha1f-caste all huddled together in the slums of Manila their eyes fastened on the sky and the sea. At night guerrilla messengers bring word of the coming of the American Army to drive, away the Japanese invaders. This is the beginning of a new novel whose surface story only suggests the invention and history that awaits the reader. The cast of characters is enormous, ranging from a half-mad prisoner to a Japanese major who views the war as the first step in the liberation of the Asian people from Western civilization. There is an American pilot shot down by the Japanese who falls in love with the young girl, an amazing keeper of a boardinghouse who spends her life planning the seduction of the old man.

"Not for years has there been a novel so teeming with life, so rich and complex in language, history, mythology."

Even as blurbs go, that one is a blitz. A more objective advance opinion is offered by the trade journal Publisher's Weekly, which ran a pre-publication notice on the Nolledo novel:

"This is a strange, compelling book that has the tortuous complexity and is fraught with the labyrinthine terrors of a dream. It is difficult to convey the full flavor of this novel, its combination of the real and surreal that becomes almost hypnotic. The place is Manila during the Japanese Occupation. Everyone is waiting for the coming of the rescuing Americans. Cabals, assassinations abound. The focus is on Ojos Verdes, a boarding house 'creeping with exotica,' in which everyone seethes with collective and individual rage. The cast of characters ranges from the intellectual Japanese commander of a prison camp, to a nameless girl, a war orphan, a strange old man. The lame, the halt and the blind are all here, but grotesque as they are, they are treated with reverence. Serious review attention can be expected."

However his book may fare on the market and with the critics, Nolledo has advanced the cause of expression in the Philippines and in the classic if melancholy tradition of epochal Philippine books (the Rizal novels, the Villa poems) published in terra aliena.

The expatriate writer is still our culture hero.

DING, as family and friend call Wilfrido Nolledo, is a Manila boy, born and bred in the tough district of Balic- Balic. He high-school'd at San Beda, finished the fourth year at National University, moved on to Santo Tomas for a Lit. B. and a graduate course. His college, the Philets, was then famed as a breeding ground for writers, having produced such lights as Johnny Tuvera, Sionil Jose, Johnny Gatbonton, Rolando Tinio and Jose Flores. On the pontifical campus Ding was a shy quiet boy, a loner, but he did get to be literary editor fIrst of the Philets magazine, Blue Quill and then of the university organ, The Varsitarian. His post on Blue Quill was taken over by a slim cool girl named Blanca Datuin, whom Ding began to fancy. At 15, Ding broke into print with a report on the; Cabanela-Anduha fight for The Sporting World; at 20, emerged as a fictionist with a series of short stories-. "Sun." "Veronica" and "Carnival" in the Chronicle weekly magazine; then won the top prize in the 1954 Marian Year literary contest with "The Beginning." But the Nolledo cult actually began with his prizewinners in the Free Press short story contest: "Maria Concepcion” (second prize, 1959); "Kayumanggi, Mon Amour" (third prize, 1960); "Rice Wine" (first prize, 1961); and "The Last Caucus (first prize, 1963). In these stories the Nolledo style has already developed its characteristic density. He won three third prizes in the Palanca Contest (1960, ‘61, ‘62) and six prizes for his one-act plays, one of which, “Turn Red the Sea,” was the top winner for 1963.

In 1959, two years after her graduation, he married Blanca Datuin, they eventually set up house on an alley off Tayuman aptly named Makata: the poet lived on Poet Street. He joined the Free Press staff in 1964, turned from teetotaller into beer drinker, did the movie write-ups and such memorable articles as an expose on North Harbor and a report on Manila’s nightlife. In 1966 he left for the United States on a fellowship to the Writers Workshop of Iowa University.

This October, three years after he started it, "But For The Lovers" appeared in New York, the first book from one Filipino writer who looks to be fecund and durable.

THE NOVEL, "But For The Lovers," has the feel of the picaresque, a vagabond manner established by its prologue, where a fantastic trio-an American soldier, a native girl, a Japanese sailor-wander through the nightmare landscapes of war. Soldier and sailor are killed, the girl shoots down their killers, then is floated 'away "on a piece of house," weeping and singing: "0 Quasimoto-San, I long for your treason. . .

The novel proper, though cored round a boarding- house in Manila, likewise is ambulant with rogues and innocents "drifting around like sleepwalkers." They range a various geography.

Item: Hidalgo de Anuncio, a Castilian relic of road-show vaudeville, once a great clown, now merely the non-top banana on the burlesque stage of wartime Manila. Nolledo here amazingly recreates the atmosphere of decayed vaudeville and in the absurd figure of Hidalgo de Anuncio interweaves backstage vulgarity and well-bred nostalgia, Quiapo and Intramuros.

Item: The Hidalgo's scabrous houseboy Molave Amoran (the names in the book have an amusing grotesquerie), a "night mammal. . . bred from four generations of squatter-scavengers in Tondo," thief' and hustler and hunter of urban game: "Amoran loved Manila. It was his territory. Especially at night of full moon and scrawny cats and dogs. Those animals' habits he timed to the second, knowing exactly where to locate them at a given hour, how large a group was loose… Meat was the thing and the Chinese cooks who operated Manila’s fringe panciterias never asked questions.”

Item: Tira Colombo, landlady of the boardinghouse on Calle Ojos Verdes three times widowed, still a voracious feeder on male meat, of which she can have her fill from those of her boarders who are behind in rent and are willing to pay in kind: "The Sperm Count as of this morning was fifty-fifty. Four probables (two bachelors, two common-law husbands) were remaindered for active duty during the holidays. Qualitatively, at least one of these possessed physical assets negotiable in A-I fornication . . .Her bulbous nose could sniff out a man's genitals in a suit of armor." But it's her genteel tenant in Room 13, Hidalgo de Anuncio, that landlady Tira Colombo is most in a rut to get to her basement bed. Tira Colombo is Nolledo's earth goddess: "Her wicker chair was set down in room thirteen. Like an Ethiopian high priestess en route to the temple, the landlady had been borne up the stairs ' by her attendants ('maids in wailing') who, dusky and stolid, resembled Babylonian slaves ransomed to imperial service. Paying tenants peeled out their doors for a glimpse of their mistress (plumped up by feather cushions) . . . The Colombo runners returned, their reina gesticulating with fly-swatter. Singing with spears in their lungs, they pounced upon the wicker throne, bearing Tira the Terrible aloft . . . She was First Female, the Woman of the Seig, neur (though Hidalgo did not know it), Queen of the Scavengers, sarap-sarap!”
Item: A sick girl whom Hidalgo de Anuncio finds on Avenida Rizal and takes back to his room at Ojos Verdes, where, on awaking from a long sleep, she relates to an assembly the wondrous adventures of her picaresque life. She is, it turns out, the girl in the prologue. And the Philippine symbol? "Neither an Hidalgo nor a Shikura, given all the time and giving back tyranny, would leave one, mark on her that she would not somehow shed like a molting skin-being as she was that most irreducible grade of human a snake ever turned to. "What's .her name? "Nei ther Brooklyn's bravado nor the promise of New York will take you out of the corn fields." But what's her name? "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, and as long as she was Mandarin eyes and Malayan hair among benzedrine masks and blond cornucopia. . . " Maria Alma. Virgin Soul.

Item: The boardinghouse: "creeping with exotica, it’s life source delineated, by somnambulistic mammalia - whose chief accent is the Scream, whose obsession is Survival at any price."

Nolledo has made that boardinghouse an image of the panic world of war-crazed Manila and the various streams of consciousness that wash through it, glinting with bits of history, swell at last into a tide of racial memory.

At book’s climax—February, the month of Aquarius-— the Liberation is thundering fatally (Boom! Boom! Boom!) over Manila and Tira Colombo has finally made it to Room 13, is trying to rape Hidalgo de Anuncio, but can't coax a hard on. "Perhaps a little loving bite? Boom! Boom! Boom!

The head carne off; a ligament stuck in her incisor left." As the boardinghouse explodes to American fire. When the ruins are dug up six months later, the clean-up detail un- earth: "one incredibly intact pair of Spanish cojones (as though left in preservatives); a soprano's dehydrated tonsils (to be mistaken for pig liver); and a woman's bacterial breast (siliconed with worms)."

As you can see, "But For The Lovers" is an outrageous book. It's very funny and savage and grim and beautiful. It has a long uproarious passage on jacking off that out-Portnoys the Complaint and an equally hilarious chapter on a. nude tango contest where the winner is the last male to come. .

The style is a sustained audacity. Though the language is heightened to the level of poetry, the narrative is readable tale, the action an excitement. A critic once said, apropos D. H. Lawrence, that realism in the modern novel should be a bush recognizably real but on fire. In Nolledo, as in Lawrence, the bushes are for real-and every bush burns.

Says Nolledo's Hidalgo de Anuncio:

"The Spanish novel in the Philippines will be commemorated in English. Everything else is posthumous."

"But For The Lovers" is the Spanish novel in the Philippines commemorated in an English that is a peaking of our culture and Wilfrido Nolledo is the link between Rizal and the "posthumous" crop of young writers in Tagalog.

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