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The heart of grief

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - April 17, 2021 - 12:00am

Personal and collective grief lies at the core of Insurrecto, Gina Apostol’s novel about the Balangiga massacre in 1901 and its multi-layered echoes down  history. Chiara is the daughter of Ludo Brasi, an American film-maker who wanted to make a film about the massacre. The film was unfinished, and Ludo later kills himself. Chiara writes a script about the massacre, and the job of vetting the script falls on the lap of Magsalin, who corrects the ‘white savior’ point of view of Chiara. Magsalin has lived in New York for almost two decades and has not gone home; she also carries a story of loss.

The author herself – who has won the PEN Open Book award for her novel, The Gun Dealer’s Daughter – admits that her book is “quite indescribable: is it a mystery? a history? a dirge? a comedy?” It is also not easy to read: the chapters’ numbers are presented in a seemingly haphazard fashion, to mimic the notes that Director Ludo kept. This also mirrors the novel’s take on the nature of storytelling: stories, or their remembrance, is never chronological or logical.

In the middle of the novel, Magsalin said that the script that Chiara crafted “creates that vexing sense of vertigo in stories within stories within stories that begin too abruptly, in medias res.” Such is also an apt description for this novel shaped like Chinese boxes, or Russian dolls, or nests within nests: a perpetual puzzle and feat of storytelling.

Early in the book, we have Chapter 21 entitled “Everything in the World is Doubled.” It sums up the doubleness found throughout the novel: Chiara Brasi and Mimi Magsalin; Cassandra Chase, the fictional American photographer and Casiana Nacionales, the female insurrecto.

Moving forward, we have Chapter 7 called “There is Always an Alternate Story.” This is a story of such alternate stories and alternative histories outside the official story of events. Casiana Nacionales is the only recognized female rebel, but she also stands for the thousands of anonymous women who resisted the American, and earlier, the Spanish colonizers.

“The Monsoons of Manila,” a chapter seen from the point of view of Virginie, the mother of Chiara, captures Manila decades ago. “The Thrilla in Manila,” the epic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1974, is recalled with such vividness. The shopping mall named after Ali is called “a motif of the postmodern.” And this chapter is followed by a kidnapping done by clowns, in the middle of mad and messy Manila.

As you can see now, an element of play and a streak of giddiness lie underneath this novel. Don’t expect a strict and straight chronology. Read it the way you read a stack of index cards: you’ll find spots of interest and a pattern will emerge.

Chapter 16 is also Chapter 26, and it is called “The Model of the Photographer.” It shows some of Apostol’s heart-stopping descriptions. “Maybe it’s Virginie’s posture – always a bit slouched, though not quite awkward – that makes her seem unaware of her power. Even in sleep upon a wicker butaka, cheeks checkered by abaca twine, or vigorously gardening in the tropics with her mouth open, red bandana fluttering against monsoon winds that make wild commas of her hair, Virginie has a touching look that her otherwise embarrassingly pampered life fails to obscure.”

But the light-heartedness in these chapters and the postmodernist narration belie the dead seriousness of the topic: the massacre of 48 American soldiers in Samar and the retaliation by the imperial forces that cost 30,000 Filipino lives. It’s a story of venereal disease and insanity among the Americans, hunger among the Filipinos and the unbearable lightness of guerrilla war. Repeated twice in the novel are descriptions of the photographs taken by the fictional Cassandra Chase, a Manhattan heiress who goes to Samar in 1901.

“America is riveted by the scandal as pictures of the Filipino dead in the coconut fields of Samar are described in smuggled letters [of the American soldiers] to the New York Herald and the Springfield Republican. They are like bodies in mud dragged to death by a typhoon, landing far away from home.”

Part 2 starts with a chapter called “Tristesses,” and alludes to Stephane Real, a French-Tunisian writer of opaque novels. It is also an excellent summing up of the growth of an intellectual in a developing country.

“Magsalin, succumbing to her fate in a Third World order, has grown up with a surplus of academic desire. It does not help that her adolescent streets included Harvard, Cubao and New York, Cubao, twin cartographic jokes that, as is often the case in the Philippines, are also facts. Poststructuralist paganisms, the homonymic humor of Waray tongue-twisters… Brazilian novelists, Argentine soccer players, Indonesian shadow puppets, Afro-Caribbean theorists, Dutch cheeses, Japanese court fictions and mythopoeic animals in obscure Ilocano epics indiscriminately gobbled up her soul…. She adored the concept of signs, without acknowledging the need to understand it.”

Internal migration from the provinces to the city, and then from the city to the world, is also shown in this novel. Some of the best parts deal with Magsalin’s three uncles who live in Punta, Santa Ana and are avid fans of Elvis Presley. They make her stay mostly at home during her visit, “not  because they are afraid for her safety… but because they believe she is stupid, an alien, having been abroad for too long, though they have nothing against that… [But she is not] a witless tourist who cannot speak [the country’s] languages, though in fact she code-switches in three of them, puns in five, makes money in two and dreams in one.”

And so Chiara and Mimi go on a road trip down to Samar, which is also a road trip down one of the harshest chapters of American colonization and a road trip into their own hearts of darkness. Feisty and fun, written with fluidity and grace, this “locked-room puzzle” of a novel is not to be missed.

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Copies of Insurrecto are available at Fully Booked. Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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