We believe that books like Nolledo's But for the Lovers don't deserve mythical status only because they are unavailable. They should be mythical because the many people who've read their book almost can't believe what they've read. We are grateful to our readers who share this perspective. Below are a few reviews we've received for the first Philippine edition of But for the Lovers.
No doubt about it: this is a GORGEOUS tome and its insides matched its outside.
This book was a painful pleasure to read, bringing to mind my reaction when I first read Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN. It was evident from the first page in both books that I was reading the work of a wordsmith, rare writers in the upper 1% of their published brethren who display such a dazzling mastery of the language, capable of telling the most brutal, evil tales clothed in the finest literary raiment prose/poetry can make. Nolledo does so with love, for each sentence is a miniature masterpiece unto itself.
But in the case of Nolledo versus McCarthy, the Filipino's achievement is all the more amazing because this is English-as-a-second-language, English weaponized as a literary middle finger to the oppressor who has decimated not just the most beautiful city in Asia, but also its people.
Let us not forget that it was the Americans who bombed Manila in 1945, causing it to be the second most destroyed city in World War II.
Nolledo writes of the war as only one who has lived through the actual hell can. But he does so with such beauty, and yes, such idealism despite the pages of melancholy. On one level the characters are all symbols, and yet these symbols are given such individuality, such unique voices, that they become real, that we care deeply whether they live or die.
Nolledo cast the Philippines as a beautiful lost girl-child that brings out the best in the men who seek to conquer her soul. The decrepit Spaniard who seeks to ennoble her, the brutish barbarian peasant who becomes human enough to serenade her with his guitar, the Japanese officer who gives her food and protects her day and night, the American POW who falls in love with one look ... all these join a dozen other characters living in a boarding house too close to a military facility, too near Manila Bay for safety.
Nolledo writes intimate details of how folks survived those days... the scenes about sisid rice (soaked in the waters of the bay that children and women nearly drowned to get) that caused manas (swollen body parts) will haunt my imagination for days. The tortures in UST, the private hells that ordinary citizens went through fill the pages.
"One revolution has failed, with more to come, more to fail. Hence the Filipino ... must be judged according to the malleability that informs his failures... But pray, how does one score the spirit?"
This book was written with love, for the ordinary man and woman who experiences love. Nolledo seems to say, forget the idealism, the propaganda behind warfare that makes no sense. The only thing that saves us, that is worth fighting for, is love. The love of a man for a girl he respects and wishes to save, transmuted into love for the Motherland. The burning passion to repopulate, re-educate a starving population, starved for purpose, for the light of civilization.
Is it too trite to say I loved the book? I loved the experience of reading it. I did not expect to enjoy myself that much, what with all the hype heaped on it in the foreword by Gina Apostol and the introduction by Audrey Carpio.
It's a beautiful thing when critics and the ordinary reader can agree: Behold, a masterpiece.
This novel has a lyrical, almost feverish prose that is brutal in (a lot of!) places. If you do not like flowery writing, I don’t think you’ll appreciate this.
On a sentence level, “But for the Lovers” demands a lot from the reader. The prose is dizzying, challenging, and is rife with code-switching. It is not a book that will coddle purely English speakers, which I laud. In the novel’s foreword, Gina Apostol wrote that every time the Filipino employs the English language, the purpose is always subversion. BftL perfectly demonstrates this point. The way Nolledo used English in this book is very Filipino and very weaponized. And as I read, I got the sense that he was having a lot of fun writing this masterpiece. This book is not an easy read, but one that is worth the trudge.
So what is it about? “But for the Lovers” follows a cast of characters living in a rundown tenement building in a Japanese-occupied Manila at the tail end of World War II. This is a war novel with much waiting; the characters await their American “liberators.” And the reader waits too — knowing full well that when Americans do finally arrive, Manila will be razed to the ground.
The way Nolledo employs language in this book is really unique. It reads a lot like magical realism with its lyrical and flowery prose, but this book is very much grounded. And brutal. The seemingly magical things are actually happening in the physical world. For example, the opening sentence reads: “He was beginning to eat flowers, and the crescent moon was in his eyes when he awoke again.” It sounds a lot like a work of magical realism. But later in the chapter, we find that the man was literally eating flowers because he passed out under a flowering tree. And when he awoke, he saw the crescent moon. This push and pull of seemingly fantastical language against the physicality of the scenes continues throughout the novel. In magical realism, the fantastical elements are also usually employed to shield against the brutality of the physical world. In Nolledo’s novel, the brutality of the physical world disrupts the reader’s enjoyment of its fantastical language. When brutality happens to the characters, it punches you in the gut.
So much trust is put in the ability of the reader. Whenever a chapter opens, the reader is plunged into the middle of the narrative and is expected to make sense of what’s happening — who’s the speaker in this chapter? Where am I? What is happening? And it’s only in the latter part of the chapter that things will start to make sense. Then, you’re on to a new chapter, and the disorientation starts again. I enjoyed trudging through the book, but can understand why people may be turned off by that.
Another marvel of this novel is that from start to finish, everything moves parallel along two realms: this is a physical novel, but it’s also very much an allegorical one. This beautifully reflects the poetic quality of our history and experiences. Of how we always seem to repeat the mistakes of the past. Of how, many years later, we seem to find ourselves in the same situations. And if we extend this to the rise of the Marcoses and the historical revisionism happening in the present… hay nako.
Which leads me to the way Nolledo wrote the novel’s climactic moment: this war novel culminates in an overlap of memories. The parallel sentences hone in on the point that things that have happened before will happen again. America fooled us twice — first when they colonized us in 1899 and now in 1945 as they shelled Manila to the ground — both done in the pretense of being our liberators.
I found the allegories too in the nose at first. But thinking about it now, I’m glad the subtexts are simple and obvious because the text itself is already challenging enough. Kung mahirap pa pati subtext san na lang ako pupulutin?
Some things I did not enjoy: I did not like the dream sequences in this novel. I did not like the woman (or, in the case of BftL, girl) as a nation trope employed. Especially since the waif who is the stand-in for the nation is worse than Maria Clara in Rizal’s novels. I don’t appreciate the sexist language (i.e., penetration), especially around the awakening of the nation’s soul. That said, I forgive Nolledo for his sexism. He’s a genius but still very much a product of his time.
The novel ends on a hopeful note, a promise of becoming, of blossoming for this nation. (Reading it today under another Marcos administration is bleak and depressing.) But one has to hold on to hope.
This novel is breathtaking, audacious, and blatantly anti-imperialist. It also tells us that the poor, the masa, carry the nation’s soul — not the educated middle class, not the wealthy landowners, not the ruthless authoritarians in power. But for the Lovers is a challenging read, but one that is well worth your time.
Just look at the Americans…no, not up there in the sky. Down here on the University of Santo Tomas Compound.’
This opens a chapter, and presents subjects that could hint why Nolledo was in many ways excluded from the national canon; the brutalities of war and sardonic humor towards it. Add the depiction of sexuality that will make contemporary readers wince, what more from back in the 70s.
Many would point to the density of his prose, but Nolledo also depicts an odd cast of characters in war-time Manila in such vulgar terms, allegories that are direct and indirect at the same time. It is hard to keep up with the images or scenes here, as you will lose track of the previous ones as you make room for the next ones. If one considers how the literary establishment enforces unspoken rules on how violence, imperialism, collaboration, ‘liberation’ are depicted, Nolledo is ultimately a heretic.
Curiously he would seek refuge in Iowa, which also serves as a model of sorts to local conservatism. But then again, WWII is a time when the Philippines reappears in the American public imagination, however But For The Lovers remains unruly, unraveling the interregnum between the Fall of Bataan and the Leyte Landing. A meditation to a parallel fraught period, executed in unmatched ambition in form and language, as the Cold War moves into total military rule.
This novel’s homecoming is long overdue—and much needed.
We thank Gabriela, Jean, and Eric for their thoughtful reviews of the first Philippine edition of But for the Lovers. Please follow fellow readers, Gabriela and Jean on Goodreads; and, Eric on Instagram.
If you, too, have read our edition of But for the Lovers, we invite you to share a review on our Goodreads page here.