On Wilfrido Nolledo’s But for the Lovers, originally in Post Road

Writer Gina Apostol wrote this brief paragraph about But for the Lovers for Post Road, a journal from Boston College. Thank you Gina ~ Mimi Nolledo


But For the Lovers, by Wilfrido Nolledo

Practically flawless in its use of free indirect discourse as a weapon of national memory, this novel set in Japanese-occupied Manila during the Second World War is written as if in cold-blooded delirium. When Jane Austen in the early nineteenth century began writing in the free indirect style, she of course could not have imagined how her narrative simulation of the vagaries of consciousness would engender one day the dream-novel of a Filipino expatriate in Iowa. Nolledo, who was a journalist, short story writer and playwright as well, weaves pitch-perfect voices, each haunting and distinct, of multiple misfits on the ragged edges of a war-torn city—a city fractured not only by violence but by language, rent not just by war but by history. Having been plundered for centuries by Spain, then raped by plan by America, Manila in 1945 is in the grip of the lunatic Japanese as it waits in numbed thrall for the arrival of its tardy saviors, MacArthur’s GIs. Witnesses to the country’s dissolution are an aging star of the obsolete Spanish theater, a pensive urban thief, a provincial virgin left for dead, a Japanese ‘ghost,’ a raving, downed American pilot mistaken for a savant. The lush fevered imagery never descends into mere tropical cliché because of Nolledo’s absolute mastery of voice—from the extravagantly worn Spanishisms of his vaudeville Manila clown to the tour de force hallucinations in Midwestern slang of the raving American pilot, Nolledo crafts with conviction the story of a doomed city, ravaged ‘but for the lovers, their arms/ round the griefs of the ages/ who pay no praise or wages/ nor heed…craft or art.’ Nolledo’s prose is a powerful marriage of modernist poetry and disciplined narration. Reprinted by Dalkey Archive in 1994, with an introduction by Robert Coover (!), But for the Lovers has been hailed as a ‘cult masterpiece,’ another term for those great books unjustly unread.

Two American writers of the Filipino-American war period

There are at least three types of interesting Americans of the period who wrote about life in the archipelago. One style of writing was to do captive narratives—I imagine those were popular among Americans, the way stereograph pictures of dead Filipino bodies were mass entertainment. Similar to these captive-memoirs would have been narratives of army officers, etc. Those seem to be well published. Of course, there were the travel narratives, many of them by women, Thomasite teachers and such. The other writer I am thinking of is a Conrad-esque one—his work was like a hybrid of Orwell’s Burmese Days and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

James Marie Hopper was an aspiring literary stylist who wrote in the vein of Joseph Conrad (Hopper seems to have been a fan of Conrad, as a letter from Conrad shows, and as the contemporaneous book reviews acknowledge). Some of the stories in Caybigan were published by the literary magazine McClure’s; he was most famous for his reports on the SF earthquake, in Harper’s—he made money enough on it to buy a home in Carmel (now Carmel-by-the-Sea), CA. He was said to have published 300 stories in his lifetime. I looked up whether or not a Filipino scholar had done any research on Hopper; could not find any references. I found him because I was looking for evidence of what seems to be an apocryphal story about Jack London—that in his time as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese war, he passed by Manila and thus owned or stole a Katipunan flag. Anyway, found no source for that rumor, but I found the work of Jack London’s friend James Marie Hopper instead. Hopper, in the Google book of Jack London’s letters, is said to have been known in the literary world as “the Kipling of the Philippines”—an intriguing, if not necessarily complimentary, epithet.

The other writer is Albert Sonnichsen, a former prisoner of war who wrote a 12 Years a Slave-type narrative, called Ten Months a Captive Among Filipinos. Mark Twain wrote Sonnichsen a very nice letter approving of his book: the memoir was, in fact, an evenhanded narration, in some places poignant, of incidents of war. Most powerful to me is his anecdote of a grieving Filipino mother offering food to the prisoner of war Sonnichsen, asking him whether gringos treated their prisoners well. It turns out the old woman’s son was a katipunero captured by US forces—a haunting mirroring in that scene. I saw Sonnichsen’s papers, including that nice autographed letter from Twain, in the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division when I was doing research on my never-ending novel William McKinley’s World. Sonnichsen was a Danish American captured by Aguinaldo’s army in Malolos; he was sailor who left his ship to take pictures of the outbreak of war, then the Katipunan captured him when he got off a train (or something Reds-like like that). He went all around Bulacan then Northern Luzon as a POW of the Katipunan, becoming friends with one of his captors Juan Villamor, an Ilocano general under Aguinaldo (a hero also mentioned extensively in Scott’s Ilocano Responses to American Aggression). The American senators who cross-examined Taft about Balangiga in 1902 in Affairs of the Philippine Islands were very familiar with Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir (it was because of Sonnichsen’s book that the senators insisted to Taft on their belief that Aguinaldo himself killed Luna; Taft dissuaded them). Ten Months a Captive is available online here.

But while Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir was well-reviewed and somewhat famous, James Marie Hopper is the literary writer. He came to the Philippines in 1901 to be a teacher; he was well-known at Cal Berkeley as a football player; he grew up in Oakland (incidentally so did Sonnichsen). His father was an Irish Fenian refugee in Paris, his mother was a Parisian who took her twin sons across the seas to California (don’t know what happened to Fenian dad). Hopper was friends with Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, etc. Hopper’s book of Conradesque short stories, Caybigan, was published in 1906; including its title’s punning use of Tagalism, caybigan, for the saccharine, reflexive term Pinoys used both for themselves as colonized and Americans as colonizer—that is, amigo—I think his book Caybigan is as interesting, maybe even more, as John Sayles’s Amigo, which has its merits as one of the only books we know recently about this war.

Being something of a modernist, Hopper drew portraits of his fellow Americans that drip with what could pass as anti-imperial critique, in that Conrad way that is both simpatico and repulsive: racist and well-meaning (it seems). I like especially Hopper’s stories of colonist-trauma—the pathetic US soldier in Iloilo from the American South whom Hopper describes with the relish Conrad gave to the nutty Russian in the Congo or the “pilgrims” in Heart of Darkness, Hopper’s beast-like Southerner in his tattered camisa climbing up banana trees in the dark of night in order to eat (the denouement is tragic, an inverse of the balikbayan-OFW tale, quite fascinating); or the farcical life of a maestro (called Thomasites in history books but portrayed with gentle but clear-eyed self-critique in Hopper, who was, of course, a maestro himself)—funny Mark-Twainish scenes of the maestro desperately catching the truant Isidro who refuses his ‘civilization.’ And so on. Hopper liberally uses Tagalog words—baguio, for typhoon, bata, tao—but also racist words like pickaninny and brownie—all in an interesting, arch voice that I cannot quite condemn or condone, so I laugh. The racism, of course, makes the entire book a bit of a travesty, but it is an instructive read. Caybigan is also available online, here.

Those two, Sonnichsen and Hopper, give one a sense of the temper and tone of some of the literary writing about the Philippines at the onset of occupation, during a global period that was, in fact, full of great human radical movement—anarchism everywhere, factory occupations in Italy, communists in Hollywood, etc. They don’t tell us why books of that sort did not have a lasting hold on American letters. Basic American education also does not include Mark Twain as anti-imperialist, for instance, or MLK as socialist. High school students always read Gatsby but never Sinclair Lewis. And so on. The lack of American canonical literary writing on the American occupation of the Philippines does tell us that American letters is highly ideological, and rightwingish: the canon is made by a bunch of twits whose main job is to take wedgies out of their asses; canons aren’t about genuine thought but about lasting reaction. Sonnichsen actually became a freedom fighter in Montenegro, and then a leader of the cooperative movement in Connecticut (whatever that is). Hopper became a World War 1 war correspondent. The 2 were by no means great writers, but they were two of the better ones, and they were more interesting voices than the much-published, stupid “historians,” like money-grubbing, gold-mine-owning, artifact-grabbing Dean Worcester. Or Forbes and Blount.

My sense is that those 2, Sonnichsen and Hopper, were exceptions, ‘better’ Americans than the usual kano in the Philippines. No wonder a writer born of erudite parents of the Spanish period, like Nick Joaquin, had disdain for the era he grew up in, the prewar years of the American occupation (at least I see that in his stories; don’t know much about his personal views); his country’s occupiers were louts, embezzlers, midget minds out to make a buck. Not to mention very tiresome racists. McCoy captures those Americans, with fine portraits of Rough Rider Leonard Wood’s stock-market-swindler son—a son of a governor-general (favorite friend of TR) who used his influence to fleece investors in Manila and New York, etc—and other filthy characters (not excepting the annoying Filipinos, like Quezon), in his essential book Policing America’s Empire (not available online, but available at Ateneo de Manila bookstore).

Both Sonnichsen and Hopper, coincidentally, were sons of immigrant Americans (one man’s father was from Denmark, the other man’s family emigrated from France) who grew up in California. They were not the Midwestern Indian-war veterans or Southern farm outcasts who made up most of the U.S. volunteer soldiers. Hopper, I imagine, was also quite different from the pious, semi-literate Christians from Ohio or Arkansas who made up the Thomasites. In general, most of the Americans who came to the country were probably like swamp people in Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner (Hopper tells a story of one of them in the opening tale of his book Caybigan). At least, that is the very unkind interpretation I make from the documents of the Filipino-American war period, which mostly come from US Army files or government documents—such texts not being beacons of enlightenment.

Some books to read after watching Heneral Luna

I see that there is a petition going around to get CHED, the education department on higher education, to show Heneral Luna in Philippine schools. I’d say that should go with a list of books and texts to read on the revolution and especially the war against the Americans. Here would be my choices, apart from the usual suspects (Agoncillo textbooks, Rizal’s novels [must read], and so on). I read these doing research for The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata and for my new novel, William McKinley’s World, and I annotate a few of the books here. In my view, all of these books should be reprinted, if they are not online. CHED should reprint the out of print books.

Affairs in the Philippine Islands: U.S. Senate Hearings on the Philippines, 1902. This is available online: https://archive.org/texts/flipbook/flippy.php?id=affairsinphilip00philgoog

These hearings begin with the testimony of William Howard Taft, the governor-general. This etext has a search function, so just search Aguinaldo or Paterno or Buencamino or Luna and see what Taft or Macarthur or Otis says about them. (Buencamino and Paterno were the leaders of the Federalistas—early collaborators with the Americans.) [oops, I lied: search function does not work.] Taft’s patronizing comments on Aguinaldo, in particular, make us understand how much our own revulsion toward Aguinaldo may also be constructed, partly, by American prejudice: very interesting. (Which is not to say that Aguinaldo does not deserve his sad place in history.) The senators ask Taft about the assassination of Luna: they believe that Aguinaldo has confessed to killing him; Taft disagrees. Etc. Interesting to hear abut these events from the enemy’s side. Arthur MacArthur also testifies (he has an interesting pompous, bombastic academic voice, like a teacher giving a lesson). It will be useful for students to see how modern-day Philippines was constructed by imperialists quite ignorant of the Philippines (and by a few nice racist anti-imperialists as well, equally ignorant). In this way, we might see how present-day self-loathing is also mirrored in the imperialists’ loathing of the Filipinos. Also, if we hear ourselves described in the words of racists, we might be able to understand the power of the colonial voice in us. Or, how much that racism shapes us. NOTE: Ironically, these hearings were convened after the scandal of the American atrocities in Samar. The aftermath of Jacob Howling Wilderness Smith’s “kill and burn” response to the Balangiga uprising resulted in the faux-‘investigations’ of the Lodge Commission and this set of hearings in 1902. Taft, A. MacArthur, Elwell Otis, etc testify, and so do many American soldiers who survived Balangiga, and so on. But no Filipino testifies: there is no Filipino voice in Affairs in the Philippine Islands.

Mabini, La Revolucion Filipina (The Philippine Revolution), available online: http://www.univie.ac.at/voelkerkunde/apsis/aufi/history/mabini2.htm

Mabini is an extremely elegant writer (I moved from the Spanish to the English to read his memoir/histoire of the revolution), and I think he’s the best stylist on the revolution. My joke in Raymundo Mata is that Aguinaldo never recovered from Mabini’s prose style. Mabini absolutely cuts Aguinaldo in the memoir—his great pen is worse than a bolo knife. Apparently Mabini did not include his own doubts about Luna in his memoir (his doubts hinge though on Luna as a politician, not as a general): but he absolutely blames Aguinaldo for Luna’s death. What we must admire about Mabini is that he refused to pledge allegiance to the Americans; he got shipped to Guam instead. He and Ricarte are similar in that way—they chose exile over allegiance to the enemy.

Vivencio Jose, The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, a juicy book that I have not reread. I read it long ago. This, I believe, is the definitive biography of Antonio Luna. (NOTE: I was the editor of a biography of Jose Cojuangco that mentions his aunt Ysidra Cojuangco’s rumored love affair with Luna; of course, the book debunks it, but also without evidence, just as the rumors of their affair have no evidence. I see the story of Ysidra as Ysabel in the movie to be seductive but not convincing; great for a movie though.)

Jose Alejandrino, The Price of Freedom. Alejandrino was an officer in the Luna Division, but he was also the brother of a great general under Aguinaldo, Joaquin. Alejandrino says he wasn’t killed along with the others in Luna’s circle because he believes Aguinaldo was afraid of making his brother Joaquin angry.

Santiago Alvarez, The Katipunan and the Revolution. This is the most comic among the revolutionary memoirs; its great details are amazingly pungent (therefore, some say, likely lies). But all the war memoirs must be taken with a grain of salt (or maybe bagoong). They were written years after the events, with, in my view, many traumatized memories, as the writers are men who lost their war, and their competing, dueling versions of who was the hero and who was not are part of the cost of our occupation, a symptom also, who knows, of our trauma. Alvarez was the son of the leader of the Magdiwang, Mariano Alvarez, related by marriage to Bonifacio. The Alvarez family took Bonifacio in when he escaped into Cavite. His memoir is in Tagalog, since he is Caviteño; it is translated by Paula Carolina Malay (wife of Armando Malay, I think). Santiago Alvarez has a great memory for stupid yet excellent details, such as a scene of diarrhea during a battle because they were so hungry they ate rotting watermelons.

Artemio Ricarte, Memoirs. Anything about or by Ricarte is worth reading. I do love how he ended up owning a turo-turo diner in japan. Or something like that.

Of course, Emilio Aguinaldo also wrote his memoirs (he wrote two, in fact), Mga Gunita and Saloobin; but each must be taken with a grain of bagoong.

Reynaldo Ileto, The Filipinos and Their Revolution, and Pasyon and Revolution. Indispensable for thinking about what the historian Ileto calls the ‘third realm,’ the peasant world of Christ-tropes and anting-anting faith that is one of the very few books that analyzes the revolution from below. It is important to recognize that the history of the revolution we are normally taught is an ilustrado history: it is history from above. And to teach the revolution, we need to be aware of our own class consciousness, and the class ideologies inherent in the way history has been written. The Manila-consciousness, of course, is a given: that Manila-fantasy aspect of our history should also be part of our awareness in teaching the revolution. Ileto does many things that deconstruct such fantasies; in the process, of course, like anyone else, he creates his own. But that, too, is a given: it is a part of the neurotic, ordinary braid of writing about history, a hazard of the revolution.

Resil Mojares, The Brains of the Revolution. Among others, Mojares casts a sympathetic gaze on Pedro Paterno (even as he recognizes, of course, this buffoon’s huge faults), and while I disagree that we need to waste any time on sympathizing in any way with Paterno, who had an amazing propensity for betraying the revolution while ostensibly allying himself with it [a truly weird guy whom Rizal mocks in code in one of his journals, and the one moment in Helen Taft’s racist memoir of her years in the Philippines that I kind of nodded at was her laughing over Paterno’s obsequiousness], Mojares’s judicious common sense is necessary in any list of books on any topic on the Philippines.

Simeon Villa, Aguinaldo’s Odyssey. Simeon Villa was a doctor in Aguinaldo’s army as it fled north after the defeat at Malolos; Villa was captured with Aguinaldo in Palanan. His diary was thus captured by the Americans as well, and it is one of the documents in the Philippine Revolutionary Records. It also exists in J.R.M. Taylor’s extremely annoying translated volume The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States. I read through that volume in the New York Public Library, and Taylor’s ignorant annotations on the Philippines are nauseating, more so because he was the translator of our story. In any case Villa is not a very good writer, or at least he is not an emotional one—an odd thing, as General Villa is the father of the poet Jose Garcia Villa (Villa the poet hated his dad, however—which is a different story). But Dr. Villa’s narrative is important because it documents the barefoot, scarring travails of the last dregs of the desperate troops of Aguinaldo, hunted relentlessly by the men of Arthur MacArthur, in particular the implacable Javert-like fiend, Fred Funston (I imagine Funston like a pirate, with a patch in his eye). In Villa’s rather autistic voice, the ilustrado nature of the Filipino officers remains problematic, but even so, his diary is terribly sad—it ends right on the date of their capture: with an eerie lack of foreknowledge. As far as I know, Villa’s book is the only extant memoir written during the war.

Orlino Ochosa, The Tinio Brigade: Anti-American Resistance in the Ilocos Provinces. This is a good companion volume with William Henry Scott’s on the Ilocanos. Someone should make a movie of Manuel Tinio. He is one of the revolution’s most successful generals. He was on the boat with Aguinaldo back from Hong Kong, but he was actually only eighteen when he joined the war against Spain. But he was such an able general he soon took charge of the northern army against the Americans. He surrendered to the Americans after Aguinaldo was captured. Note how no one knows much about Tinio—the heroes of the American war are not enshrined the way the Spanish war heroes were. I imagine one reason might be the fact that they became politicians after the war. Tinio did not write a memoir.

William Henry Scott, Ilocano Responses to American Aggression. Scott is very meticulous and gives a good survey of the peasants, the towns, the provinces, and the heroes and the enemy occupiers in the Filipino-American war. It is a good book for recognizing the daily life but also the high stakes in the war—that we began as an anti-imperialist nation—and our loss in that war brands us, sears us, so much so that we have forgotten that war. At the end of his book, Scott muses on that fascinating gap—the lack of memoirs detailing our war against the Americans. Filipinos do not write the story. None of the heroic northerners in Scott’s book wrote their memoirs—most wrenching would have been Manuel Tinio’s memoir: perhaps the most honorable and successful among the Filipino generals in Scott’s book. The paragraph on his surrender to the Americans is heartbreaking. But Tinio never wrote his own story down. Scott notes that one great revolutionary against the Americans, Juan Villamor, wrote an unpublished chronicle, Inedita Cronica de la Guerra Americana-Filipina en el Norte de Luzon, 1899-1901, but even that unfinished chronicle, projected to be three parts, has part 1 and part 3 but not part 2: the section on battles against the Americans. The only known contemporaneous Filipino-American war memoir that exists intact is Simeon Villa’s. Even the very talkative memoirist Santiago Alvarez, for instance, does not talk much about the battles against the Americans—he focuses on his time with Bonifacio, and he ends with some funny addenda on the colorum; Ricarte focuses on the Bonifacio period as well, with some huge swaths of (I imagine justified) vitriol against Aguinaldo. The lack of emphasis on the Americans in the movie Heneral Luna is just one more war story that for some reason cannot address adequately that imperial war, as if the American war is an undigested, indigestible bitter pill that we have yet to swallow in the story of the making of our nation. The tendency in history is to move on quickly into the Quezon era, and then World War 2, when America is our unedited hero. It’s a weird gap in the Philippine story, the American war.

Albert Sonnichsen, Ten Months a Captive in the Philippines. Very interesting book on being a prisoner in Aguinaldo’s army. His book would also make a good movie. Some excellent details on daily life in the revolutionary provinces. It is available online: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=XzFDAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA8

Sonnichsen was a fairly liberal-leaning man (still has racist traces, of course) who was captured in Malolos. He was a kid from Oakland, CA, part Danish. The book’s trope is that of a white man taken by the natives (like those American tales of being kidnapped by Native Americans). In captivity, he meets some key figures like Juan Villamor, teaches English to a mayor, learns Spanish from his fellow prisoners (some Spanish POWs), watches a revolutionary fiesta, eats a lot of bibingka, and so on. Some very moving scenes in the book, such as when a Filipino mother feeds him and asks him about how Americans treat their prisoners—turns out her son was captured by the Americans. Sonnichsen’s papers are in the New York Public Library, and he ended up joining the independence rebels in Montenegro after his capture in the Philippines. Wondered if his time captured by revolutionaries made him join a different war.

Alfred McCoy, Policing America’s Empire. This gives devastating light on why the revolution so spectacularly failed—trust me, it is not our fault. It is also not Aguinaldo’s fault. Our self-loathing is misplaced. The brutal counterinsurgency and policing methods of the Americans were abominable, relentless, rapacious, outrageous. Scandal-making and spying and ferreting out blackmail-worthy secrets on postwar katipuneros are only a few of the sidelights that explain why the stories of the American war do not exist. People were hounded into silence, collaboration, allegiance, and so on. Of course, many were likely going to be venal anyway, like Quezon (he seems to have been a spy, more or less, or at least a well-groomed informant, for the infamous U.S. constabulary chief of Manila, Bandholtz). Quezon especially does not go down well in this book; but nobody does. But the fact is, the venality of any Filipino intriguero in the American years must be balanced with the implacable policing system that both anticipates the Marcos era but also creates it. The spy, policing, and military system of the Americans is inextricable from its effects: even though one may also see that that past system may not be the direct cause of our current state and atrocities, the thread is indelible. If one split our history in half, with the American era (up to 1946) on one side and folded the other half (1946 and beyond) over it, we’d simply be creating a mirror montage: the American era facing the post-American era, and the spy and military structures of each would mirror the other: the corrupt and relentlessly self-serving age of the American occupation is embalmed in the failed forms of governance we know now.