Insurrecto, by Gina Apostol

Some of the words used to describe Insurrecto: dizzying, labyrinthine, psychedelic, meta-meta. This doesn’t sound like a novel I’d love, but I did love this. The descriptor I’d choose is “kaleidosopic,” and I have always loved kaleidoscopes. The multiple time- and storylines of this novel reflect and refract each other. It’s full of metaphors of frames, lenses, and zooms, a novel peopled by photographers and film-makers. Give it a twist and see its narrative fragments fall into a new pattern.

Apostol was born and grew up in the Philippines and now lives in the US; Insurrecto takes up the fraught history between the two countries. Magsalin, a translator, has come home from New York for a visit, mourning her mother and her husband, working on a mystery novel. She receives an email from Chiara Brasi, a film-maker, demanding her help in a visit to Balangiga, Samar, site of a massacre in the Philippine-American war. When Chiara was a child, her father Ludo filmed his cult movie about the Vietnam War, The Unintended, there. Now Chiara wants to make her own film, prompted by a night with a group of artist friends in the Catskills where they all agreed to write a story based on what they found with a single Google search. The multiple references in this framing–to Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, the night in Switzerland that gave birth to Frankenstein–are typical of Insurrecto, which is full of allusions to cultures high and low. 

From this opening the novel moves in multiple directions: the narrative of Magsalin and Chiara’s journey and the stories of their dueling film scripts. In 1901, upper crust American photographer Cassandra Chase arrives in Balangiga to photograph natives and American soldiers, and later to record the atrocities. In 1972, Ludo Brasi makes his film and has an affair with a local teacher.

Names, characters and events echo each other in these stories. Violence–of invasion and insurrection, of the Marcos era, of drug gangs and the Duterte regime, is woven through them all. Elvis and Muhammad Ali make appearances. So does Apostol’s soccer fandom. I learned so much–that Ewoks and extras in many a film supposedly set elsewhere spoke Tagalog, for instance–and I’m sure missed much more. But Magsalin would tell me not to worry too much about that:

Magsalin hears rising up in her that quaver that readers have, as if the artist should be holding her hand as she is walked through the story.

But she rides the wave, she checks herself.

A reader does not need to know everything.

How many times has she waded into someone else’s history, say the mysteries of lemon soaps and Irish pubs in Dedalus’s Dublin . . . and she would know absolutely nothing about the scenes, the historical background that drives them, the confusing cultural details . . . and yet she dives in, to try to figure out what it is the writer wishes to tell . . . .

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?

This reads like an overt address to Apostol’s readers, more overt in its message than she usually is. But one thing that struck me, reading this, is how intertwined American and Filipino cultures are, how familiar many of the references are.

I don’t mean to imply that this exchange is equal: American culture invaded, colonized, imposed itself on the Philippines, as it did in so much of the world. But the very existence of Apostol’s playful novel (Ludo isn’t named Ludo for nothing, surely), her ability to play with and between cultures, like the Tagalog-speaking Ewoks and the Muhammed Ali mall, shows that the Philippines have secretly infiltrated, have resisted, have remade “American” culture as their own. Apostol wants us (American us) to see that and to count the costs of insurrection.

I haven’t captured more than a fragment of Insurrecto here. To see it from another angle, check out Jen McDonald’s review in the New York Times. Or just read the book and experience its wonders for yourself.

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6 Responses to Insurrecto, by Gina Apostol

  1. Sunita says:

    What a wonderful post! I borrowed this from the library when it was longlisted for the TOB and then didn’t get to it. You’re inspiring me to check it out again.

    Considering how entwined Filipino and US histories are, and the ability of Filipinos to immigrate to the US when other Asian immigration was more restricted, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more literature. So it’s about time!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think you will like it! Especially the hints of soccer fandom. I realize this book did make some 2018 best lists and since it came out in November it may make some award lists this year, but I feel like it deserved more buzz. It really is, as the novel suggests, a forgotten history for Americans.

  2. Teresa says:

    I have this on my library list and expect to get to it in the next couple of months. I’m glad to know you liked it so much! I really like that idea of readers not having to know everything about a culture to get something out of its art. I’ve read many a book where that was the case, but I still usually found something to appreciate, even when I know I missed a lot.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I look forward to your thoughts on it, Teresa. One thing I liked about this, which isn’t quite reflected in the passage I quoted, is that the points about cultural knowledge have a lot of nuance. Yes, the big issue is that Americans have been able to forget a history the Philippines are still living with, but Magsalin has been living in the US for a while, and she asks herself whether she can fully understand her homeland, or how her time away has changed her understanding. Nothing in this novel is straightforward, which I can sometimes find frustrating but really worked for me here.

  3. I looooooved this book, I was just absolutely blown away by it. It made me want to read everything else Apostol has written, and then read a ton of books about the history of the Philippines. I’m so glad you liked it too!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It was fantastic! I feel the same—curious about her other works, and about more books from Filipino/a authors. A couple of years ago I read a mystery from the Philippines, Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan, and I liked that a lot too.

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