Wilfrido Nolledo's 'But for the Lovers' returns to life, thanks to publisher Exploding Galaxies

Exploding Galaxies unearths forgotten masterpiece of Philippine literary fiction

A new publishing house in town has a very unique vision. Exploding Galaxies, the brainchild and passion project of Mara Sy-Coson, is out to unearth forgotten masterpieces of Philippine literary fiction and give them a new lease on life.

This is an ambitious value proposition, as even in the best of times, literary fiction is a hard sell (I got this from publishers I spoke to during the recently concluded Philippine Book Festival as well).

But Sy-Coson is confident that there is a market for these books, and she is passionate about bringing them back into the spotlight.

Mara Sy-Coson with her supportive mother, Tessie.

At the launch held at The Alley at Karrivin, Mara and her Exploding Galaxies partners could barely contain their excitement. After years of hard work, their dream of publishing forgotten masterpieces of Philippine literary fiction was finally coming true.

It was a moment they had long been waiting for. It was like nurturing a plant or tree seedling, and then finally witnessing its flowering and full growth.

To borrow an adjective coined from literature, there may be something quixotic about Exploding Galaxies' raison d'être. But that doesn't make it any less noble or valuable. As an avid reader of global literary fiction, I can only salute this endeavor, and wish it a successful long run.

And I now segue to a review of the first published work of Exploding Galaxies:

Set in 1940s Manila, Wilfrido Nolledo's modernist novel "But for the Lovers" has a curious history. Written after Nolledo had gone to Iowa as a Fulbright scholar, the novel was first published by Dutton in 1970. It was then reissued by Dalkey Archive Press, who still hold the rights to the book's publication in the USA and Canada. In 2023, Exploding Galaxies negotiated with the Nolledo estate for the rights to publish the novel in the Philippines and the rest of the world. Nolledo passed away in 2004.

The novel takes a diverse cast of characters and sets them loose in the maelstrom of Manila during the Japanese Occupation. The story follows their lives as they navigate through the chaos of war, from the brutality of the Japanese occupation to the jubilation of the US Liberation.

What makes Nolledo's treatment of this era so unique is his curious blend of passages of harsh social realism, coupled with gauzy, stream-of-consciousness, hallucinogenic sequences. He then layers this with a bawdy, overtly sexual tone that's reminiscent of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," updated for a World War II in the Pacific era.

Among the more memorable characters in the novel is Hidalgo de Anuncio, a mestizo street performer who wanders the streets of Manila on a nameless crusade. His crusade is never made very clear, but it is streaked with longing and nostalgia. He has a sidekick in the form of a young boy named Molave Amoran, who is at times like an emaciated version of Sancho Panza to Hidalgo's Don Quixote. Hidalgo's landlady, Tira Colombo, is an obese firecracker of a woman, more than ready to exchange sexual congress in exchange for condoning the delinquent payments of male boarders.

Sari Dalena, a family friend of the Nolledos.

In Nolledo's description of Tira, his wonderful sense of wordplay is evident. He describes Tira as someone with "more skeletons than closets." The use of Filipino vernacular without any explanation or translation punctuates much of the narrative. If you are a non-Filipino reader, you will need to use context to glean its meaning. I understand that Nolledo was adamant about using Filipino in his book, and it is evident that his US publishers acquiesced.

Angeli Bayani, who read an excerpt from the novel.

To be brutally frank, "But For The Lovers" is not an easy read. There’s a nimble interplay of styles, tone and language within this one novel. While the time setting is the 1940’s, there’s a liberal use of more modern language and sensibility in how Nolledo writes about, and attacks, the subject matter. There were surreal moments when it felt like this reader was in the middle of a Salvador Dali painting.

Given the rich cast of characters, some critics have mentioned the word "Dickensian" when describing the novel. Me, I’d add how it’s also very "Mervyn Peake," where the gothic and grotesque inhabit this vivid, off-balance snapshot of post-war Manila. Without doubt, this is a literary gem of Philippine fiction; a singular work of art that occupies its own space fiercely and without compromise. Literature such as this may not be populist in taste, but it shouldn’t be ignored. So kudos to Exploding Galaxies for this Nolledo "resurrection."