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Gina Apostol: Insurrecto review – a treacherous archipelago of stories | reviews, news & interviews

Gina Apostol: Insurrecto review – a treacherous archipelago of stories

Gina Apostol: Insurrecto review – a treacherous archipelago of stories

Tragic Filipino history inspires a smart but overwrought novel

Beauty and terror: Gina ApostolGina Apostol

As in other countries born out of 19th-century uprisings against imperial power, the literary roots of the Philippines run deep. Executed by the Spanish in 1896, the novelist, poet and physician José Rizal remains the adored hero of his archipelago’s struggle for independence. Yet this legacy of authored nationhood has not helped Filipino writers much in their quest to have their stories heard abroad. Later subjection to the United States – overtly colonial rule from 1901 to 1946, followed by military, economic and cultural hegemony – has meant that the few works that do reach an international audience tend to swim along in the mainstream of hyphenated-American migrant sagas. 

A handful of British writer-adventurers (especially Timothy Mo and James Hamilton-Paterson) have written powerfully about the tangled weave of the islands’ cultures, but only as fascinated outsiders. Then, a decade ago, the global acclaim achieved by Miguel Syjuco’s carnivalesque novel Ilustrado marked a breakthrough. Ilustrado sent a young, US-based researcher back to the Philippines on a quest to uncover the story of an exiled literary lion, and to understand in polyphonic prose the hybridised place that had nurtured him. In the same vein, the Filipino-born, US-domiciled novelist Gina Apostol draws on the over-written nature of Filipino history and identity – “overdubbed, multiplied, intercut and hyperlinked”. From this layered material she stitches a sophisticated, self-reflexive tragi-comedy, adorned with a glittering array of metafictional games and postmodern conceits. In Insurrecto, three key periods of the islands' history interact and overlap: the insurrection and subsequent war against US occupation in the early 1900s; the Marcos dictatorship of the 1970s; and the media-savvy authoritarianism of Rodrigo Duterte and his "war on drugs" today. They join in a multi-perspectival plot about “a crime of history that no single vision can redeem”. 

This triple action wraps – sometimes, arguably, smothers – the blood-stained horrors of Filipino history in a tightly-knotted web of storytelling strands. In the present day, an American film-maker, Chiara Brasi, visits the Philippines to research a project inspired by the unexplained disappearance of her father – the cult art-house director Ludo Brasi – on location in the islands in the 1970s. The movies planned by father and daughter, four decades apart, both turn on the Balangiga massacres of 1901. In this colonial-era atrocity, the killing by Filipino rebels of 48 US troops on the island of Samar provoked drastic and indiscriminate reprisals from the occupiers. Their campaign of scorched-earth vengeance saw thousands of local people slaughtered. Apostol quotes a figure of 30,000; other sources cite 2,500. It was an American crime against humanity, by any measure. The demonic US general Jacob Smith even decreed that Samar “must be made a howling wilderness”. 

Apostol can write with electrifying intensity about a peculiarly Filipino cocktail of beauty and terror, both in the past and the present. Immersive passages about the preparations for the insurgents’ raid (dressed in women’s clothes) on the diseased, depressed American troops, or the sinister patrols of thuggish cops on today’s tropical highways, shimmer, glow and burn. The writing swerves at breakneck pace between farce and tragedy, lavish sensuality and wisecracking erudition. Along the way, Insurrecto evokes the Philippines equally as “a dystopia of brazen exterminations”, an accursed place caught in “an infinite spiral of historic slaughter”, and a funhouse hall of mirrors where cultures reflect and distort one another in a delirious imitation game. Scatty, punning humour and affectionate intimacy enliven the scenes among the Elvis- and Muhammad Ali-loving family of Chiara’s translator Magsalin. They may be culturally colonised Filipinos, yes, but also folk who show “how beautiful is imitation… when its vessel breaks the heart”. 

Yet, in the end, Insurrecto’s laborious avant-garde scaffolding of films within films, scripts within scripts, yarns boxed inside one another, exhausts more than it enlightens. The sudden shifts between the generations of Chiara, of Ludo, and of the fictitious Yankee photographer Cassandra Chase (whose camera witnesses the tragedies of Balangiga) eventually begin to pall. This frantic movement drains the colour from each panel in the fictional triptych. Punishingly often, Apostol whisks us behind the scenes, behind the lens, to explain the function of key characters, while Magsalin tries to rewrite Chiara’s screenplay to express “the eye of the colonised viewing their captured history in the distance created by time”. Magsalin accuses her theory-hungry younger self of “a surplus of academic desire”. You might say the same of Insurrecto itself, with its weakness for knowing postgrad in-jokes – particularly when 17 pages of end-notes rattle off a facetious routine of pseudo-scholarly gags. This dragging coda reminded me more of the campus drollery of David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury than the wizardry of Georges Perec or Julio Cortázar (two of the pioneer metafictionists whose work has evidently cast a spell on Apostol).  

Insurrecto assumes that, on these islands scarred by the historical clash of rival narratives, where all identities are “irremediably mediated”, no single account will ever suffice. As two generations of post-Márquez, post-Rushdie novelists have shown us, fiction from the ex-imperial world will often split, branch and fracture into an inter-connected archipelago of stories if it seeks to do justice to the voices formerly silenced by the languages of power. 

Beyond doubt, Insurrecto sticks smartly, and very self-consciously, to the script of this post-colonial post-modernism (should we call it Poco-Pomo?). For this reader, however, Apostol’s novel truly takes wing when it leaves its tricksy architecture behind to grapple more viscerally, more nakedly, with the tainted inheritances of the Filipino past. Magsalin feels that the Balangiga outrages remain “a story of war and loss so repressed and so untold”. And, at times, I felt that Apostol’s most subversive option would have been to dump all the professor-pleasing riffs about mirrors or recurrences and tell that story as a broadly realistic slice of historical fiction to touch, to shock and to warn. As Magsalin herself says, “what the fuck is the point of knowing history’s goddamned repetitive spirals if we remain its bloody victims?”

'Insurrecto' evokes the Philippines as 'a dystopia of brazen exterminations' and as a funhouse hall of mirrors

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Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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