“Two women, a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker, go on a road trip in Duterte’s Philippines,” describes the back cover of Gina Apostol’s new novel Insurrecto. The D-word made me pause and pick up the book. You don’t often see novels set in the hyperpresent, and a phrase like “Duterte’s Philippines” is one particularly fraught with tension and trauma that I was already envisioning all the things that could go wrong for these women as they traverse the country. I imagine that the inclusion of this regime in the story will make many Western readers pick up the book, too, as intriguing and repugnant the President is a character to international observers.
It turns out that the Duterte setting has little to do with the thrust of the story—the author had already written part of the novel in 2013 (appearing as the short story titled “The Unintended” in Manila Noir, an anthology edited by Jessica Hagedorn), and only recontextualized current events afterward, easily linking the specter of extrajudicial killings to the violence of the Philippine-American War at the turn of the century and to the grave abuses of the Martial Law period in the 1970s. “What’s the point of knowing history’s goddamned repetitive spirals if we remain its bloody victims?” the character called Magsalin demands.
Magsalin is a Filipino expat who works as a translator in New York. She returns to Duterte’s Philippines for a couple of reasons, to write a mystery novel as well as to confront some painful personal history. She is tapped as a translator/fixer by an American filmmaker, Chiara Brasi (loosely inspired by Sofia Coppola) who, as a child, lived in the Philippine jungles while her enigmatic father, Ludo Brasi, filmed The Unintended, a cult Vietnam War classic in the vein of Apocalypse Now and Platoon. The Unintended, it was later discovered, was based on an uprising against the American occupation in Balangiga, Samar, which led to the annihilation of thousands of Filipinos in 1901. Chiara wants to make a film about a female American photographer who documents the atrocities and brings them to light at the US Senate Hearings of 1902, and so she asks Magsalin to take her to Samar. Magsalin, cognizant of the question of who gets to write the history of the colonized, decides to revise the script.
The road trip begins, and here is where the story goes full meta jacket, with two dueling scripts woven together like a “sinuous braid of Manila hemp,’ a recurring motif. The narrative (and chapter headings) hopscotches around Cortazar-like, and just when you think you’re deep in the action, the narration pulls back to reveal a cinematic framing device or the cold observant eye of a writer mining her material. The hidden heroine of the war tale is Casiana Nacionales, the lone woman listed in the Balangiga shrine yet largely left out of history books and film. Casiana, the historical figure better known as Geronima, is said to have signaled the attack on the American soldiers while they were having breakfast, unarmed. The bells of Balangiga rang out, and 500 Filipino men, dressed as women hiding bolos under their skirts, killed some 44 American soldiers. In retaliation, General Jacob Smith ordered his men to kill and burn any Filipino over the age of 10. A disputed number of Filipinos were killed, and Samar was reduced to a “howling wilderness.”
The second script depicts the filming of a war movie set in Samar, during the ‘70s. With shades of Tropic Thunder, the simulacrum of the war machine unsettles the townsfolk and Filipino extras who are confronted with a living trauma they have to constantly reenact for the gaze of a white man. We see this unfold through the eyes of Caz, a schoolteacher from Samar and the jaded mistress of the film director not so loosely based on Ludo Brasi. The mystery at the heart of this novel, for me at least, is the question of whose script is whose. All is revealed at the end, but a book review or two seems to have gotten it reversed. Not that it matters, as both Chiara and Magsalin are rewriting a history that is only partially theirs, revisioning a narrative that can and must be viewed through multiple lenses. Standing in for US-Philippine relations, the protagonists’ traumatic pasts bleed into each other. They women maintain an unequal relationship throughout the road trip, only bonding, aptly, at a final karaoke session to Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”
The stateside reviews of Insurrecto have been astounding, and it’s not hard to see why. Gina Apostol writes with precision. The raveling, Inception-like structure is meticulously plotted out, and the philosophical tangents are probing and scholarly. There’s an important history lesson, with the lesser-known massacre of Balangiga—quite timely as the bells have recently been returned—sure to elicit at least a smidgen of colonial guilt. And while Insurrecto can be tricky to follow (the accompanying website, praxino.org, has a helpful appendix) it doesn’t read like a heavy novel. The New York Times has even called it comic. Indeed, the scenes depicting, for instance, the labyrinthine process of buying shoes at a local department store sounds quite absurd, if it weren’t actually an indictment of horrible labor practices familiar only to the Filipino reader living in the Philippines. Or the ludicrousness of a policeman insisting that a bag of human remains is shabu. That would be damn funny, if the possibility of this happening weren’t so tragically real.
Apostol is also a schoolteacher who teaches American History (insurrected with Philippine history, no doubt) to high school students in New York. Is hers a Fil-Am voice, and does it matter? There’s a current of exclusionarism when it comes to literary criticism within the diaspora and the homeland, questions of who gets to tell the story of the “Filipino,” and how authentic it is. Does an author stop being Filipino when they start paying taxes in a different country? Does the Philippine experience only belong to those who don’t leave? Apostol seems to be aware of this debate and is unperturbed by the problems of identity. She tells Laurel Fantauzzo in an interview with the LA Review of Books. “This novel is saying—let there be many ways of telling stories, of having delight in stories. Viet Thanh Nguyen [author of The Sympathizer] calls it the need for narrative plenitude in the stories of the diaspora—and that narrative plenitude must also be about style—stylistic plenitude.” Insurrecto has style aplenty, and its dueling, dueting voices are only a reflection of our already fragmented condition.