A matter of apostrophes

ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - June 2, 2014 - 12:00am

It took me a while to finish Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter (Anvil 2010), not through any fault of the novelist, rather due to sheer intimidation with the type size, as well the bouts of attention deficit disorder that seem to rule our day to day. Apostol was here recently around the Holy Week, both to promote her double-barreled work, the aforementioned Gun Dealers’ (apostrophe rightly placed) and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (Anvil 2009), and to take a much-needed break from the Big Apple to visit her typhoon-ravaged hometown of Tacloban.

At the book signing held at National Book Store Glorietta on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, as traffic crawled because of re-blocking along EDSA, we barely caught Gina at a table holding forth to sign our books sent courtesy of the publisher. Our former co-teacher at the UP Manila almost 30 years ago had lost most of her hair but which she was now growing back, having gone through a round of chemotherapy. By that time I was halfway through Gun Dealers and she had gamely signed and written a dedication, for the revolution and for reading.

One may recognize in the author’s third novel the old University of the Philippines Diliman, circa mid-’80s during the twilight of the dictator, and any alumnus of the state university would be familiar with the dorms, covered walks, and pavilions of the old school. Set against a backdrop of martial law in its death throes, and the tentative fledgling years thereafter, Gun Dealers takes the novel into political territory, but the protagonist can only be a personal fiction.

But just how much Soledad Soliman is a product of the writer’s imagination is always subject to speculation, more likely — as is the fashion — a composite creation, with bits of personal effects thrown in. It helps too that Soledad has a namesake contemporary and dorm mate, a combination doppelganger and guardian angel who is a sister in arms in the resistance. Add the boyfriend of the girls and son of another of the dictator’s cronies, and you have a not so merry go round of youth misguided yet at the same time lyrical and gifted.

Those versed with the national democratic struggle may have a beef with the circumstances of the conflict, that this was not how things were in the protracted fight against hegemony; then again one must not forget that this is a novel and those really were confusing times. There too are inescapable historical references and inferences, like the assassination during the early Cory Aquino years of a Jusmag official in Quezon City. This is the milieu the novelist moved in, shortly before she migrated to the United States in the ’90s.

More than anything, however, Gun Dealers is a tale of friendship, and how faithful companionship transcends and outlasts any ideology. One can read it in the lingering detailed descriptions that are Apostol’s stock in trade, the clever witty repartee between the main characters and even minor ones,

The fine unmitigated sense of irony and delicate humor leave no doubt that the author is firmly in control. In gist this is the writer’s craft: control and irony, and the no man’s land between filled with sentences and the imagination of the damned and almost damned.

If there is a voice here in Gun Dealers trying to tell us that the revolution not only devours the innocent but that no one is safe in the fallout of our collective apathies, then we might be wise enough to heed it. No use even for spoiler alerts for a review such as this, for Gun Dealers as novel always has the capacity to surprise the reader, and we don’t mean by any twist in plot or turn of phrase.

It is a tribute to style how the first few paragraphs are repeated somewhere towards the end of the novel, when the gun dealers’ daughter arrives at Nice airport to be with an uncle during convalescence, as if things have already gone full circle before they actually come full circle, how the tricks of fiction enable it to jump ahead of itself, its own semblance of foreshadowing and repetition.

Raymundo Mata, though with copyright a year earlier than Gun Dealers, could actually be the later novel; it is certainly the more experimental one. Again the type size is formidably small, especially the voluminous footnotes at page bottom that could very well be a novel within a novel, a stylistic innovation or aberration reminiscent of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

Still one can’t help applaud the levels of discourse presented by such revisionist history, though we admit being somewhat stumped by the work, feeling a bit left in the dark and deprived of a substantial portion until we obtain a magnifying glass to decipher the footnotes that could be key in understanding our perpetual state of revolution.

Trust Apostol to take the novel where it hasn’t gone before, and for this she has to thank her mentors Eric Gamalinda and John Barth, both sticklers for how art must stand on its own the farther away from home the better. The novelist herself has come a long way and there’s no turning back, or it could also be that she has come full circle without our noticing it, and this can only be for the benefit of the novel to come which might be again dedicated to a late lamented partner.

We can only wait for Sandra Dee Sinead O’Connor Gina of Tacloban and New York to out-write us all before the nameless deluge to which she will give name.

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