Reviewed by Palo Garcia
By Gina Apostol
336 pages. Soho Press.
Two women—A Filipina translator and an American filmmaker—embark on an arduous process of recalling and reconstructing the complex history that binds their two homelands together. Chiara Brasi, the golden child of an acclaimed auteur and a jet-setting socialite, revisits her father’s masterpiece and the land that birthed it. She enlists the help of Magsalin, an aptly named translator who literally carries with her the remains of her past, to take her to a scene of a forgotten tragedy. Together, these two women plunge headfirst into a murky mix of memory, history, and fiction—and it’s impossible for them to emerge unscathed.
Gina Apostol’s latest novel, Insurrecto, takes the reader on a journey into the Balangiga massacre, through the overlapping perspectives of Chiara and Magsalin, as well as the characters of their creation. Understandably—because of their backgrounds and circumstances and life—the two women’s narrative clash and contest each other, while still offering an expanded view of what may have happened and what may have occurred within the individuals living through the Philippine-American war in Balangiga.
Structured not unlike a screenplay, this novel basks in seemingly disconnected scenes that blur the lines separating time, truth, and imagination. Each chapter is a heady, lushly written scene with a woman at its heart, be it Chiara, Magsalin, Chiara’s mother Virginie, and characters in the fictive reconstruction of the events in Balangiga: Cassandra Chase, an American photographer whose eyes and lens bore witness to the bloody retaliation of her fellowmen against Filipino revolutionaries, and Casiana Nacionales, a cunning local trader who sought to oust the invaders from her town. And then there’s Caz, a young woman who fell in with Chiara’s father Ludo during the filming of his magnum opus, which was set in the Vietnam War but shot in the Philippines.
These women navigate their pasts, a modern but no less perilous Philippines, their relationships with each other and the men in their lives, and the complicated ties of their countries that manifest not only in history, but also in pop culture and national identity. The novel constantly challenges the reader to rethink and question personal and national narratives through shifts between time, twists, and metaphor. Insurrecto lays bare the act of creation (with characters that are creators not only of fiction, but also of circumstance) and calls attention to itself as a product of the process. Chiara and Magsalin’s riffs on techniques (including a cheeky revision of Chekhov’s Gun) serve not only as clever dialogue, but also as flags of self-awareness.
Insurrecto might not seem like your typical novel, but should you decide to pick it up, be ready to question not only the characters, their perspectives, the narratives winding through it, but also your understanding of writing, history, and memory.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol is available at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
Palo Garcia is a writer by trade and a book hoarder at heart. She hopes to one day conquer the behemoth that is her to-be-read pile. She sometimes talks about books and films on social media (@palollibee on Twitter and Instagram).
[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.]