“I think we are stuck in someone else’s movie,” says co-protagonist Chiara Brasi early on in Insurrecto, telegraphing the framing device for Gina Apostol’s new novel. Chiara, filmmaker, daughter of an artsy filmmaker, daughter of an heiress, golden-haired devotee of Hermès bags and sunglasses, has come to the Philippines to research a movie. She needs help, and finds Magsalin, a returned-expat Filipina writer and teacher. Magsalin reads a draft of the script and comes up with her own. These two scripts become narratives interleaved with the interaction between Ciara and Magsalin. Chapters are jumbled up; there are two sets of dramatis personae laid out at the beginning, a long set of semi-faux End Notes and references inside the text to an actual website set praxino.org up by the author.
Insurrecto, then, is an exercise in form and an exploration of meaning and reality. It is, to use the term du jour, very “meta”.
Insurrecto is a bravura performance.
But author Gina Aspostol has more on her mind than literary structure. The target of the scripts is the story of an episode on the island of Samar in the Philippine–American War, the Balangiga massacre of 1901, which either refers to the killing of 48 American soldiers by townspeople over breakfast, but has since, at least among Filipinos, come to mean the resulting American retaliation. No one knows how many died: thousands, tens of thousands.
This episode is, one imagines, better-known among Filipinos than among Americans, the only excuse for which being that for Americans, it was neither the first nor the last in a list of appalling atrocities carried out by the self-styled non-imperialist United States in the name of “pacification”; that Balangiga was described as the US Army’s worst defeat since the Battle of the Little Bighorn is all the explanation one needs.
Several of the characters in these chapters—the American officer Capt Thomas Connell, Lieutenant Edward Bumpus and the local police chief and key plotter Valeriano Abanador—were real people, as was the woman, Casiana Nacionales, the “insurrecto” of the title and central to the uprising, that Apostol plucks from relative obscurity.
There are explicit echoes of Vietnam in this story—a reminder of the selective memory that is a particular ailment of United States—but there are also more contemporary connections. Balangiga, which isn’t far from Tacloban, was in 1901 recovering from a major typhoon that passed through in 1897; Haiyan (or Yolanda) was a replay. Balangiga’s church bells, confiscated during the American retaliation, are the subject of current diplomatic tussles between the two governments.
Insurrecto is the literary equivalent of pinball.
This all sounds very worthy and perhaps off-putting, but reading Insurrecto is the literary equivalent of playing pinball: the prose ricochets around, takes long looping arcs through paragraph-long sentences, only to bounce off bumpers in rapid-fire dialogue. The book bounds along in the present tense. Characters engage in repartee that might have been scraped from one of the wittier television shows. Literary references abound, as do references to film, music, fashion, and popular culture, sometimes cascading in passages that feel like pachinko; when Chiara makes first contact, Magsalin goes online to learn more about her:
A Philippine tour operator reports in a news update that Tom Cruise was sighted in August at a resort in the Ilocos, sporting an ugly ingrown toenail revealed by beach flipflops. Sandra Bullock did not buy her black baby in the area near the old US Air Force base in Pampanga. Madonna’s orphanage in Malawi is losing money, its website hacked by teenagers. Eric Clapton’s late son’s former nanny, a Chabacano, is said to be in seclusion in Zamboanga, an island in the far South, near the pirates—she still mourns her single lapse. Once again, Donatella Versace did not slap her maid. A video of Chiara Brasi shows a wan and wavering figure, in one of those canned interviews to promote a project. This detail appears in FabSugar, the Emory Wheel, the Irish Times, romania-insider.com, the Kansas City Star, the Prague Post, gmanetwork, inq7.net, and Moviefone: at age five Chiara rode a helicopter over Manila with her father when he was filming his war movie about Vietnam. A fond memory, in 1976. Someone had unhinged the helicopter’s doors, and she looked out as if the sky were her vestibule.
Apostol, at least through her characters, is a keen observer of human foibles, alternately sympathetic and cutting. Ciara gets butter on her designer glasses; Magsalin gets distracted by her own literary pretensions; the ewoks in Star Wars spoke Tagalog. It can be hard to know what is real and what is a projection of one character of another or, perhaps, the author herself: everyone does indeed seem “stuck in someone’s movie”.
The use of movie-script framing allow passages to be cinematic; the sections that take place in Balangiga in 1901 are particularly, evocatively and dramatically so. The boredom of the soldiers and the their obliviousness to the situation is oppressively palpable. Apostol—or it is Chiara?—creates the character of the well-bred and well-connected pioneer photographer Cassandra Chase, on location in Balangiga and a thorn in the side to the military establishment.
Insurrecto is a bravura performance.
Apostol sometimes seems to feel the need to explain what she is doing, to make her structure visible. Maybe without the explanation, the reader would work out that the various historical sections are “scripts” rather than just fiction—but if not, the parallels and connections, the sense of history imposing itself into the present and of the present projecting itself onto the past, emerge naturally over the course of the book. “A reader does not need to know everything,” Apostol writes in another instance of conflating form and function, but it’s true.
She also seems to have felt some need to make the novel overtly “relevant”; the references to the current Duterte regime were evidently added since the novel began life in print as a short story in the 2013 Manila Noir collection (much of the initial section of the novel is lifted from Apostol’s contribution entitled “The Unintended”, the name of the film in the novel). Perhaps, since Philippines-set literary fiction lies outside the anglophone mainstream, one indeed needs to invoke today’s headlines to get attention. But to her credit, she has made few comprises in this regard: the novel is littered with phrases in various Filipino languages and Filipino-inflected Spanish, and with multitudinous unexplained cultural and historical references. Readers might wish—like her protagonists—to have the Internet at the ready.