But for the Lovers has been called an undiscovered masterpiece, a great book unjustly unread, undeservedly obscure, and remarkably underground. It was conceived in the Philippines, midwifed in Iowa, and birthed in New York in the year 1970, blazing brightly for a second before quietly fading away. Twenty-four years later, the novel experienced a renaissance with a second reprint, again in the United States. Another twenty-nine years will pass before it is reissued, this time in the Philippines, birthplace of the author, the setting and the burning heart of the novel, and the country where its absence is felt the most.
In those five decades, Wilfrido D. Nolledo—Ding to his friends—has been introduced to readers several times and eulogized many more, by writers who called him a friend, a colleague, or a great influence, a few who have lamented the fact that But for the Lovers is not in the canon and that Nolledo and his work remains largely unknown, even to aspiring Filipino writers.
Nolledo was born in Manila in 1933, the son of a lawyer and a nurse. He grew up on the mean streets of Balic-Balic, surviving the Japanese Occupation as a crafty street scavenger and barterer of goods. After attending high school in San Beda, Nolledo graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in journalism from the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (Philets), the now-defunct college that produced national artists Rolando Tinio, F. Sionil Jose, Bienvenido Lumbera, and national hero José Rizal. Such luminous alums gave rise to the reputation of Philets grads as exemplary philosophers and writers.
At UST, Nolledo served as literary editor of the college journal Blue Quill, and there he met his alma gemela Blanca Datuin, herself an aspiring writer. After a quiet courtship filled with letter-writing and long conversations, they married in 1959, the same year Nolledo started winning awards in Philippines Free Press short-story contests and when the cult of Nolledo well and truly began. By calling it a cult is to acknowledge an element of craziness induced: Alfred “Krip” Yuson recalled the intoxication he felt whenever he read Nolledo’s stories and desired to replicate his style: “the lyrical influence proved so inestimable that I consciously sought to turn into a ‘language writer,’” he wrote. César Ruiz Aquino, who attended the very first Silliman National Writers Workshop along with Nolledo, wrote that Nolledo’s stories “influenced, quickened, and sent a generation of future Filipino novelists crashing into the sky.” Later, as a resident panelist, Ruiz Aquino would recite bits of Nolledo’s prose to the young workshoppers every summer. Nolledo’s 1961 short story “Rice Wine,” whose poetic concluding paragraph was indelibly seared in the minds of his fans, was eventually dramatized for television and remains on many college lit course syllabi.
Despite the several prizes he collected for his short stories and plays, Nolledo remained an enigma, perplexing panels and disconcerting critics with his jazzy rhythms and linguistic density, techniques that would reach their peak expression in But for the Lovers. Lumbera, in his introduction to the posthumous publication of Nolledo’s Cadena de Amor and Other Short Stories, noted that the author knew he was considered a “difficult writer,” but that he remained committed to his style, notwithstanding grumbles from the ruling literati. It didn’t matter; Nolledo had found a dazzled audience among younger writers who came of age in the 1960s.
Nolledo joined the staff of the Philippines Free Press in 1963, where he worked alongside Nick Joaquin, Greg Brillantes, and Pete Lacaba, writing a breadth of articles from movie reviews to journalistic exposés. The gang would hang out at some beer joint or café or at the Free Press canteen, where, on Wednesdays, young writers would flock to sit at their feet while the garrulous Joaquin presided over beer and pulutan. Nolledo was often quiet amongst the crowd of boisterous bohemians, and he usually left after one drink to head home to his family.
On a streak to winning every conceivable literary prize, Nolledo took the Palanca First Prize for his one-act play, Turn Red the Sea, and received a Ten Outstanding Young Men award for literature. Also that summer, Paul Engle, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the most regarded creative writing programs in the world and which the Silliman National Writers Workshop was patterned after, embarked on a recruitment tour of Asia and visited Dumaguete where he was likely introduced to Nolledo, either personally or by way of reputation.
Nolledo was so focused on his work that he often forgot that he was being awarded and almost missed the offer for a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Iowa had the US Embassy not tracked him down through his wife. In 1966, he landed in the cornfields of Iowa, and Nolledo found himself in the class of visiting professor José Donoso, a Chilean author whose work is recognized for its dark surrealism and social satire. However, it was his mentorship under Robert Coover, an experimental American writer who would later be known for his convention-defying narrative constructions and pioneering work in hypertext fiction, which proved invaluable, as he would later write the foreword to the 1994 reprint of BftL.
Things were set into motion for the publication of this manuscript when a literary agent from New York came scouting at Iowa. Nolledo and South African writer Stephen Gray, whom he met at the workshop, submitted a collaborative thriller they wrote together. Hal Scharlatt, at the time reputed to be a brilliant young editor at Random House, politely turned it down, but in a P.S. asked who wrote so-and-so chapters, and if that person had a novel of his own?
Nolledo sent in three chapters of But for the Lovers, a war story with a multitudinous cast that coalesces around an unlikely trio—an aging Spanish clown, a wily street urchin, and the mysterious waif they take in at a decrepit boarding house—while the City of Manila awaits America’s second coming, which is also the moment of Manila’s annihilation. Scharlatt immediately offered to publish the novel, but not before being appointed editor-in-chief at E. P. Dutton & Co. The move signified a shift in the publishing house toward political and social issues and contemporary fiction, and he accepted the job upon the condition that he bring with him BftL. As for the editing process, Scharlatt did not touch a line in the manuscript, instead sending his suggestions on a separate sheet:
Nolledo’s reply is a rare insight into the inner workings of his novel in the author’s own words:
Pages 125-139. The next three paras will be crucial, Hal. And please, please, do not take them as the outpourings of a spoiled poet, whatever that is. Pages 140-157 contain the hemorrhage scene of Hidalgo as prefaced by Alma’s “menstrual months.” I realize that this is not easy reading; nevertheless, this section is a set-up: in effect, the girl is spitting out the Spanish Colonial experience. Her monthly period comprises, in terms of history, four centuries of Hispanic subjugation. Four hundred years of Spain, Hal! And all I’m asking for Hidalgo is his one chapter in court. If Hidalgo’s remembrances strike you as unreadable, they nonetheless contribute to his image as the Don Quijote of Ojos Verdes. We Filipinos have had to wait centuries for the privilege of killing our “spiritual father,” and Hidalgo de Anuncio, like James Bond, is unkillable. For me to cut this part would be an act of cowardice, personally. And won’t we be doing the reader an injustice by presuming he can’t digest such stuff? If it were simply a matter of verbiage, something I could cut without harming the structure of the novel, I wouldn’t waste this space arguing. With the conviction that this is an integral part of Lovers, I will not spare the reader the printed anguish that my country had suffered in blood.
But for the Lovers was published in October that year, with Hidalgo’s chapter intact. The reviews came in: “This is a strange, compelling book that has the tortuous complexity and is fraught with the labyrinthine terrors of a dream,” wrote Publishers Weekly. The New York Times called it an “unusual ferment of fantasy and reality,” while Kirkus Reviews pronounced it a “garish tropical bouquet of horrors.”
In his essay “Amid the Alien Corn” (a reference to both a line in a poem by John Keats about the Biblical Ruth, and Iowa’s endless cornrows), Joaquin, writing as Quijano de Manila, stated that his friend Ding “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.” Later, Joaquin called Nolledo the best exemplar of our postwar fiction, “Philippine baroque at its most outrageous.”
And yet, what was hailed as one of the best books of the decade failed to achieve commercial success and was quickly forgotten. In 1974, Scharlatt, Nolledo’s editor, suddenly died of a heart attack after playing a set of tennis. Without BftL’s biggest champion, publicity for the book dried up and it was virtually abandoned by Dutton. Part of their original contract was the option for a second novel, which Nolledo had already written. It was never published.
Bob Coover was kind enough to connect Nolledo with an editor at Doubleday, who happened to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis. In 1987, he forwarded her two chapters of Sangria, Tomorrow, when she expressed an interest in working with him. She asked to see more of the manuscript, and they had a few back-and-forths before JKO ultimately decided that “it would be a very difficult book for us to market.”
It was Coover, again, who suggested reaching out to another editor, this time Steven Moore at Dalkey Archive, a small press in Illinois that rose to prominence for publishing out-of-print books, English translations of foreign language texts, as well as risky, experimental works that commercial publishers wouldn’t touch. Moore, a great fan of difficult, maximalist novels, wrote back to Mrs. Nolledo, who had sent him a copy of BftL, with an offer to publish it after having read only the first forty pages.
The reprint and first paperback edition of BftL was released in November of 1994 with a wonderful foreword from Coover. But for his love of Nolledo, BftL would have languished in secondhand book bins, the single, singular published novel from the writer who was once called the enfant terrible of Philippine letters. It is the edition that is now required reading in a few Philippine literature courses here and in North America, yet practically impossible to find in bookstores.
Nolledo passed away on March 6, 2004, at the age of seventy-one.
Often overshadowed in literary discussions of Nolledo’s style are the substance of his work, their socially engaged themes, and his core humanity.
Joaquin unraveled the thread when he wrote, “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.” But for the Lovers’ third iteration, published by Exploding Galaxies, a small press formed during the pandemic, invites a new generation of readers to once again meet the inimitable Wilfrido Nolledo and enter deep the labyrinth."
Audrey Carpio is a writer from Manila. She is the features editor at Vogue Philippines and is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
This introduction can be found in the Exploding Galaxies' edition of Wilfrido D. Nolledo's But for the Lovers.