Gina Apostol’s stunning novel “Insurrecto” offers a nuanced narration that deftly illustrates the power of perspective and the importance of the storyteller while revisiting the complicated history of the Philippines.
The conclusion of the Spanish-American War of 1898 marked the fall of the Spanish empire, which agreed to relinquish Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the U.S, as outlined by the Treaty of Paris. For the Philippines, which had desired independence, the shift from Spanish rule to American rule was met with such strong resistance that it resulted in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). But was this conflict a revolution or an insurrection?
In present-day Philippines, two women set out together for Samar, the site of the Balangiga incident of 1901, in which 45 Americans lost their lives and, in retribution for their deaths, thousands of Filipinos were massacred. Chiara Brasi is an American filmmaker who has inherited an obsession with this war story from her father, an Italian filmmaker who disappeared mysteriously after filming on the island. Magsalin, a translator and mystery writer, after years in self-exile, is also on a spiritual mission to reconnect with her homeland. She left her country to fulfill her dreams only to return a widow and dejected by the rise of Duterte, “the drug-war-obsessed macho who has vowed to kill every criminal in sight.”
As traveling companions with disparate artistic temperaments, Chiara and Magsalin are constantly at odds, except when it comes to their shared taste in accessories: both sport an “aubergine and olive duffel bag, made in Venice” that keeps popping up throughout the novel as the unlikely symbol of their common goal: “to gain a foothold, however tenuous, on the deep-seeded horrors that claw at us but to which we do not give names.”
To that end, they each write versions of a film script set in the same location but at different times. The first features an American female photographer whose postcards bear witness to the horrors of the massacre; the other, a Filipina schoolteacher whose lover is an Italian filmmaker shooting a film set in 1901. As they criticize each other’s scripts, Chiara asks: “How do you know that your perspective does not distort the story? ... It’s not a version. It’s an invasion.” To which Magsalin responds: “A mirror, perhaps?”
Herein the inspired structure of the novel: all three story lines (the road trip, Chiara’s script, Magsalin’s alternative vision) unfold out of sequence, constantly challenging the reader to piece together the stories — a task that becomes impossible once it’s clear that Apostol has interwoven the narratives. Like parallel universes, all three exist simultaneously, complementing each other like the parts of a stereo card: it takes more than one side to achieve depth. And since the Philippine-American War is revisited through multiple pathways, it becomes less and less the forgotten or untold conflict and instead one whose legacy of “policing and counterinsurgency” is relived on the archipelago throughout the 20th century and beyond.
Skipping from one story to the next eventually becomes less burdensome since Apostol ensures that each strong female lead shines in her individuality, even when the names ring similar: Cassandra, Casiana, Caz. The cast of characters conveniently listed at the opening of the book is useful but as the plot thickens it’s the women who continually orient the reader while the men exacerbate the chaos.
What’s also striking is the embedded critique of the post-colonial era, which cemented icons like Elvis, Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali into the country’s pop culture. (Plus a nod to Italian American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who shot “Apocalypse Now” there). There is no shaking off, it seems, the lasting thumbprint of the colonizer, even during periods of extreme government control as when the Philippines was under martial law. Yet the craze for karaoke, the naming of boats after Jackson’s children, and the unshakable memory of the Thrilla in Manila add a touch of humor to this otherwise bleak historicized narrative.
At times, Apostol doesn’t hide her editorializing hand, like when Magsalin considers her own writing process: “Why should readers be spooked about not knowing all the details in a book about the Philippines yet surge forward with resolve in stories about France?” But these moments cast small shadows against the enlightening education “Insurrecto” offers concerning the Philippines, past and present. If anything, given the nature of the atrocity that foregrounds the story, the narration exercises considerable restraint. Any outrage is best expressed by the graphic descriptions (and staged reenactments) of the Balangiga villagers under siege.
Chiara and Magsalin never quite make it to Samar. They don’t have to. As women who negotiate emotional truths through artistic expression, it’s their own literary labors that help them arrive at a moment of reckoning with their personal struggles. Writing the scripts empowers them as much as they hope that their interpretations on film will be transportive and eye-opening: “Our mind imagines. That is how we see. Through illusion.” So too does this novel guide its readers toward a hard lesson that can be applied to the practice of good intentions and the arrogance of the savior complex that underpins American international policy and global affairs: “There are consequences to your desires that you will regret, no matter how much you imagine your evils are unintended.”
An arresting novel with a timely political message, Apostol’s “Insurrecto” dazzles with its inventive structure and superb portrayals of women as leaders of ingenuity, creativity and reason.
González, one of The Times’ Critics at Large, is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark. His most recent book is the memoir “What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth.”