By Gina Apostol
Early in Gina Apostol’s “Bibliolepsy,” the assured young narrator states that some people might be disappointed to know she had a happy childhood. The same sorts of people may also be disappointed to know that Apostol won the Philippine National Book Award for this audacious first novel, and for her second one as well. This year, her debut is available in the United States for the first time.
“Bibliolepsy,” published in the Philippines in 1997, begins in the 1980s, during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The narrator, Primi, has a refreshing lack of self-consciousness that gives the book the feel of another era. Primi does not fixate on how others might perceive her thoughts and choices. Amid the mounting civic unrest in Manila under Marcos’s oppressive rule, she feels like reading, and that’s what she does. Along with her cravings for the company of books, she desires the sexual company of people who write them, and she seeks out those encounters — some of which are pleasurable, others disturbing.
Apostol grants Primi an exhilarating agency in pursuing these literary and sexual quests, merging her bookish and bodily cravings. Primi calls the collision of the two a “fabulous monster of incongruous parts — text and body, manual and man.” With her country on the verge of revolution, she finds solace in lofty proclamations like these. Apostol creates a striking contrast between wry, outlandish statements and earnest ones verging on spiritual. She compares the satisfying precision of words to the “grandeur of God.” By God, Primi clarifies, she does not mean “pied beauties and dappled beings” so much as a “Dictionary of all possible multifold sensual things.”
Throughout the novel, as in her lauded later works of fiction “Insurrecto” and “The Gun Dealer’s Daughter,” Apostol evokes “reading’s endlessly replenishable boon.” She also wisely recognizes the limits of living for words alone. She writes convincingly about Primi’s increasing exasperation with her bibliophile boyfriend, Fernando, who “has nothing to share with me but books.” Primi finds it impossible to go on discussing book spines with Fernando when the store on the corner is “loud with the news” that revolutionaries are taking over Manila.
In the novel’s final sections, Primi and Fernando head out together on a motorbike to take in what is happening as the People Power Revolution begins in 1986. One former teacher is selling peanuts. A word-loving ex-boyfriend is hoping to make some urgently needed income as a journalist covering the revolt. These last sections have more immediacy and fully realized scenes than the rest of the book. As in many first novels, events in “Bibliolepsy” often occur in summaries rather than sustained scenes that extend long enough to evoke the nuances of a significant moment.
The novel’s closing pages slow down and detail Primi’s meals and conversations as she joins millions of others on the streets of Manila. After a funny moment eating skewered pig’s ears, Primi hears that Marcos has fled the country. She recalls “dancing with a stranger in a red shirt, doing a kind of cha-cha in a wild, out-of-tune surprise,” before realizing that it’s just a rumor. Their celebration is only slightly premature. Marcos leaves the next day in an airlift provided by President Ronald Reagan. Yet the sense of anticlimax lingers, as though the country were “in this motion-picture pause, trapped in the festivity of a long false alarm.”
We’re left with Primi’s profound disappointment with what happens next in the country, with all the ways the peaceful revolution turns out to be a “blip in a more difficult history,” leading to the failings of the new government under Corazon Aquino and economic reforms that never come. “Like any citizen in a passionate country,” Primi says at the end of this spirited novel, “I keep looking for some chimera.”