Reviewed by Jed Cruz
By Gina Apostol
336 pages. Soho Press.
Insurrecto does not waste time in declaring that reading it will be a different experience: the book begins at chapter 20 and proceeds to play up and down the chapter scale — energetically and unpredictably, much like a jazz pianist! — from there. There is some logic to the chapter numbering to be worked out, but it’s a bit too much to think about for a reader who is already struggling to follow the many different threads that make up the narrative.
Central to all the different tangents that the story goes off on is the translator — cheekily named Magsalin — who agrees to work with a movie director who is scouting locations for a film about a relatively unknown massacre in Balangiga, Samar during the Philippine-American war. Going beyond her duties as translator, she begins making edits on the story itself, which infuriates the director.
Or does all of this actually happen?
Insurrecto’s odd storytelling style makes all of it vague and unreliable: in the opening chapter, Magsalin has returned to Manila from New York with the intention of writing her mystery novel. In the process, she seems to create the character of Chiara Brasi, the movie director, making her (to some degree!) a fictional construct within a fictional construct.
Their story intertwines with the event of the actual massacre itself in 1901, where two women also take center stage. Cassandra Chase, a photographer from a wealth New York family, is in Balangiga to take cutting-edge stereoscopic photos of life in the town. Casiana Nacionales is a local girl who hides a secret. The reader sees glimpses of their time in Balangiga in the days leading up to the massacre.
The history itself is worth reading about — a lost chapter from a war that has been ill-documented and often forgotten. The problem with Insurrecto lies in the characters and the storytelling.
This reviewer is not acquainted with Gina Apostol’s other works, but her manner of unfolding the plot in Insurrecto is very confusing. The narration will go off on the most random tangents about pop culture and local Filipino culture which can last for paragraphs, and the connecting ideas between chapters are few and far between in the novel’s front half. The prose can get heavy at times, and more than once, the author throws thick, one-sentence paragraphs at the reader — the type that requires a few extra seconds to parse.
It doesn’t help that every chapter featuring a specific pair of characters in the book’s second part is labeled as chapter 1. Every single one of their chapters is called chapter 1. There’s probably a point to this. It probably just requires a bit too much thought.
All of these add up to a book whose content is undeniably compelling, but one that also inexplicably tries its best to distract the reader from the good bits with different kinds of literary gimmickry.
Maybe on some sort of level, the unfathomable parts are part of a big joke that not the entire audience might be privy to. Read Insurrecto because it talks in good detail about a remarkable tidbit of Philippine history, but be ready for a few bumps along the way. Perhaps its full truths were too deep for this reviewer to appreciate — and that is meant as a compliment in every way.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol is available at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]