Memoirs of a Book Junkie
by Gina Apostol
University of the Philippines Press, 1997
Bibliolepsy, defined as “the endless logo-itch, desperately seeking,” conjures images of spasmodic fits of book-loving. It is a disease of excessive dependency on the written word that can, if not kept in check, cost someone her life. Bibliolepsy is an affliction and is only slightly different from bibliophilia, which connotes a healthier attitude towards the consumption of the written word. While bibliophiles are merely collectors of books, bibliolepts have an incessant urge to talk about books to anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Bibliolepts shamelessly namedrop an author and constantly allude to literary texts, often in a pedantic display of words. Worst of all, they tend to look at life as if it were the life of the author, the life of a character in a novel, or a novel itself. The novel’s protagonist, Primi Peregrino, is a self-confessed bibliolept. Primi’s life is clearly demarcated by the books she has read and the lovers she has taken and long since discarded.
Bibliolepts like Primi need to fill a gaping void in their lives. Bibliolepsy is “derived from habitual aloneness and congenital desire,” and they search for the missing pieces of their lives alone, in the comfort of their individual cubbyholes in the library. The meaning of life is painstakingly researched in the annotated works of Franz Kafka and is argued out to a fellow bibliolept who has found solace in Albert Camus. Bibliolepts fashion their lives after an author or a novel in an effort to break free from the tedious humdrum of everyday existence.
Apostol goes so far as to say that some of the best tragic heroes are biblioleptic: Don Quixote and Emma Bovary are cited as examples.
The novel portrays bibliolepsy in such a way that if you substituted the word “book” with “drugs” or “sex”, you get a perfect working definition of drug dependency and nymphomania. In fact, for Primi, books are her substitute for men, although she seems to go through men faster than she skims through books. Her lovers, with the exception of a typewriter repairman and an actuarial, all belong to the business of writing and, in the final analysis, it is the writer in the man -- not the man in the writer -- that turns her on.
Writing is a more painful form of bibliolepsy. Instead of just searching for the magic words that will change her life, she takes it upon herself to supply the world with her own set of incantations. Yet most bibliolepts are drawn to writing either by an excessive distaste for words -- the aftermath of a biblioleptic frenzy -- or the working of the writer’s enchantments on the person. Primi’s compulsion to write was triggered by her constant conversations with Juan Somerset Chong, her Greek lit classmate, fellow bibliolept, and perennial Palanca loser.
With the introduction of Chong in the story, Apostol launches into a commentary on the Philippine literary scene. Although the novel is set in the early 1980s, Primi’s perceptions may be just as relevant today.
It seems that the highlights of a Filipino writer’s career are the book launch and any award-giving ceremony. These are the only times a writer is in the public’s eye and gets the recognition she is due. Primi bewails the fact that only a small fraction of the country’s writers swim in a self-contained current in which they keep meeting only each other and are often each other’s only readers, if they are lucky,” she observes. Without the launch and the awards, a writer is reduced to a sheaf of articles written for dailies and magazines. But then again, “even when you’re published, the indifference of the experts will kill you.”
In Primi Peregrino, Apostol succeeds in creating the bibliolept extraordinaire, the proverbial word junkie. True or her name, Primi weaves through her library of books and memories endlessly, searching for the root of her affliction. Her biblioleptic frenzies are purely personal, unlike the bibliolepts in her circle who write for recognition or social relevance. Amidst the madness and activity surrounding EDSA -- “sliphod, cheesy, heavy-handed plot,” according to Chong -- Primi finds herself in the Sunken Garden with Fernando, who is as much as bibliolept as she is. She makes no excuses for this indifference, except that it wasn’t easy living in a novel: the predictability of our country’s fate made her want to “jump off history’s inexorably written text and into a ravine of her own choosing.”
The narrative is delivered in rich, florid language and is peppered with references to authors and their bodies of work. At times the text reads like a heavily referenced term paper -- one feels as if it was written to impress discriminating bibliolepts.
Fellow bibliolepts might find the constant allusions amusing. Chunks of the story are communicated in a secret language only understood by readers familiar with writers as diverse as Rushdie and Dostoyevski. This makes reading the novel quite difficult for less voracious book enthusiasts. Leafing through a dictionary to find the meaning of the word “pernicious” only to find that it means “destructive” can be very tiresome and reading whole lines referring to passages from other unfamiliar novels may discourage the fainthearted. While Primi Peregrino’s thoughts and actions are presented to the reader, they are not always understood. Reading the novel may sometimes feel like watching a foreign movie without any subtitles.
Writing a novel about an obsession for books confines its readership to those suffering the affliction: Lit majors, college professors, book thieves, library frequenters and other movers and shakers of the literary scene -- clearly setting a dividing line between the well-read and the not-so-well-read, making the writer, as Primi Peregrino says, “an exile in her own country.”
Review by Patricia Calzo Vega
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Source: Philippine Collegian, “Book Reviews,” November 23, 1998