‘Bibliolepsy’ goes to the world

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Gina Apostol was educated at the University of the Philippines (AB) and The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University (MFA Creative Writing), where she studied under John Barth (think of “The Sot-Weed Factor,” “Giles Goat Boy”). She also took fellowships at Johns Hopkins, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, Philips Exeter Academy and a host of others, which gave her time to write her now-acclaimed novels.

Her first novel, “Bibliolepsy,” was published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1997. It subsequently won the Philippine National Book Award for the Novel, sold out and promptly went out of print. Apostol has since published three other prize-winning novels in the Philippines and in the US, and the time is now ripe for an American edition of her first novel, courtesy of Soho Press.

The catalogue of her educational background matters, for it shows the roots of Apostol’s debut novel, which is a postmodern one. The postmodern novel can describe a text that is fragmented and episodic, written in an allusive and knowingly self-conscious manner, playing with languages and its many prisms, full of pastiches and eye-winking ironies. In short, it runs on sly adrenaline and is written in a spirit of playfulness.

“Bibliolepsy,” which has 27 short chapters, has all these and more. But first, what does “bibliolepsy” mean? It is “a mawkishness derived from habitual aloneness and congenital desire. Manifestations: a quickening between the thighs and the points of the breast, a broad aching V, when addressed by writers, books, bibliographies, dictionaries, Xerox machines, a sympathy for typists of manuscripts. Etymologically related to Humbert Humbert’s gross tenderness, though rarely possessing its callous tragedy; occasionally accompanied by a liking for rock and roll.”

That liking for rock and roll, by the way, is a motif that will also run in Apostol’s novel, “Insurrecto,” a tour de force about the Philippine-American war.

Thus, broadly speaking, a bibliolept is a person who not only sleeps with men but also with books, a whole archive of them. Prima is the main character (prime) and her father is called Prospero, who drew “Anibal, the Ipis, A Patriotic Cartoon,” while her mother is Prima Mercader Watts, a taxidermist. The couple meets in a decrepit boat bound for Leyte. He reads a book and pointedly ignores the heiress slumming it in third-class. But she vomits when she could no longer take the pitching of the boat: “Not for my music, my good looks, or my big silly eyes did he go near me,” the mother recalls. “But for my vomit he came.”

The novel is filled with funny and wry set-pieces like this, puzzles that fit in and replicate meanings in the reader’s minds. Apostol clearly knows her narrative theories and spins them in the air like so many colorful balls, only to catch them and spin them some more. Language is her major gift in this first novel. Her narrative voice is fluent and lyrical, satirical and blunt. She describes the dolphins trailing her parents’ boat as “like flashing glass domes, quick and thickly crystalline.” She avoids melodrama in the retelling of the parents’ love story, and steers clear of the usual narrative arcs of realistic Philippine fiction.

Literary allusions come and go like, well, women in front of a painting by Michelangelo. These allusions are juggled with dexterity and skill. “But all this [the parents’ romance] is predictable, a common provincial chronicle. What interests me, of course, is the book. I keep wondering what Prospero was reading on that first boat journey. I imagine my father, shadowed and tubercular, profile deepened against water, reading the last poem that Shelley had written before he died in Spoleto. Or maybe it was the passage in Melville [“Moby Dick”], in which our archipelago is unnamed but recalled by the beckoning of vast black sea, between the description of ropes and the listing of harpoons. Or it had been the tale of his namesake, Prospero [“The Tempest”], a betrayed man on a boat, laden only with books and a child.”

The narrator and her sister, Anna, are pampered by their rich and eccentric grandmother, who looks down on the girls’ poor father. She buys them the strangest things, offered to her by her smuggler friends: readers’ edition of books from Indonesia, written in a language close to Waray; the book “Abraham Lincoln’s World” and, yes, the “Kama Sutra,” which the grandmother describes wryly as “a book of fairy tales from India. The most expensive book among the smuggler’s goods.”

It is a fast and dizzying read afterward, the pages turning and turning: the parents die, Prima discovers the books that her grandmother had donated to the public library, where she spends many days in a bid to survive, and endure, the narrow confines of her provincial childhood. After high school, she passes the entrance exams to the State University, and from here, the novel takes wing and flies.

The first part is good, but the second part is something else: an excellent tour de force.

Finally, Prima has admitted that she wants to write, but not in the usual way. She wants to write with the body, the way the French feminist critics (Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig) did. “What had led me on my ghost-cruise around the loins and lips of words was basically this: the substance of recollection in my thighs, sharp response of flesh…” Not just to write but also to love the men coming and going into her life like so many departures and arrivals.

The novels satirizes literary life in the Philippines, which is like other literary lives overseas, filled with the talented and the noisy ones who aren’t. She also skewers the EDSA People Power Revolution in terms Freudian, slippery with words.

Other people write tomes that would be better off as doorstops. In this slim but marvelous novel, Gina Apostol serves up Manila in the 1980s: swift, Swiftian, sexy and sad.

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Email: [email protected] Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” was recently published by Penguin Books.


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