MICHAEL CAYLO-BARADI Engages
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
(Soho Press, 2018)
Tentative Notes for a Book Review on the Structure of Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto.
When I think of non-linear narratives in Filipino-American fiction, I always go back to Jessica Hagedorn’s novels, especially, Dogeaters (1993). In that novel, each chapter offers a world of its own, a tone, a distinct memory of ghosts, loss, and dilapidations, that when stitched together like a collage, in the reader’s imagination, reveals a distinct impression, an ecology of dimensions cohering into a recognizable and familiar dream-state. In Hagedorn’s case, of course, that impression is the Philippines as an archipelago of desire, a dream-jungle of religions and melodramas, among other things. The spirit of Hagedorn’s narrative form is quite alive in Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto (2018), though Apostol may have accelerated that form to another dimension of frenzy, full of jump cuts, close-ups, and other cinematic techniques, made explicit by the way her novel arranges and numbers its chapters.
Here, Apostol starts with the twentieth chapter, on the third page, then bounces back to the second chapter on the fifth page. The first-chapter sits deep in the belly of the novel, and is now part of Part Two, sandwiched between the twenty-second and the twenty-eighth chapter, one-hundred-seven pages later. On the other hand, Part Two is titled “Duel Scripts,” where there are nine first-chapters, or ‘dueling’ first-chapters, first-chapters trying to be the first-chapter in the mind of the novel; these chapters contain information for a movie-script. To curious readers, arranging the chapters this way doesn’t necessarily invite confusion, but more like a challenge to connect the dots in the imagination, made more challenging by the sheer number of characters involved in the story, which is listed in a “Cast of Characters” section, after the epigraph.
So why bother arranging the chapters this way? First, let’s look closely at the novel’s two leading ladies who make the story happen: Magsalin and Chiara Brasi. Based in the U.S., Magsalin divides her time between New York City and Manila. She is a novelist; her genre is mystery. And she has been fishing for a subject for her next novel while on vacation with relatives in Manila, when she meets Chiara Brasi, a filmmaker, who is scouting locations for a movie in the Philippines, and needs a translator. This is not Chiara’s first visit in the islands. In fact, she has lived in Manila before, in 1976, when she was only five, and her father, Ludo Brasi, was making a war film about Vietnam called The Unintended, which Magsalin has seen a few times in her teens. Critics praised Ludo Brasi’s film as a viable contender to the creative genius of Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, though less commercial. Then Ludo Brasi disappeared, after his film premiered, perhaps a victim of “the existential weariness in his film,” according to one critic.
Ludo is now dead. But when Chiara was going through information about her father’s work, she read a paper written by a Filipino scholar linking The Unintended to a gruesome event that happened in 1901, when American soldiers massacred close to thirty thousand Filipinos in Balangiga, in the island of Samar, and only a few Americans were tried. Chiara tells Magsalin that her visit to Samar “is necessary for her spiritual journey.” And more so, Chiara “had a conversion into the world of the Filipino insurrectos in 1901,” as though “[Chiara] had entered a portal and becomes the body of a Filipino farmer disguised as a devout Catholic woman carrying a machete inside his voluminous peasant skirt and hoping to kill a G.I.” On the other hand, Magsalin dismisses the confession as mere hallucination, that the filmmaker is suffering “an unearned case of white guilt.” But in many ways, Chiara’s ‘conversion’ only deepens the mystery of Chiara’s oedipal intentions in Balangiga, and thus heightens Magsalin’s interest in Chiara as the new protagonist of her next novel.
Now I’d like to think that the novel uses the imagination and temper of Chiara’s conversion, though unconsciously, as a kind of template on how Apostol structures her novel. Indeed, the conversion contains a host of elements, or rather competing signs and significations that offer clues into the sensibilities of that conversion, its tendencies, and, too, its proclivity for chaos, revisionism, and, certainly, revolution and change. Here, an American filmmaker’s imagination in the age of information enters the imagination of Filipino resistance in the early part of the twentieth century, when the United States was still a young empire, obsessed in claiming the teleologies of manifest destiny. Here, the camera meets the machete. Or perhaps the camera as story-teller in the digital age enters the spirit of the machete attuned for insurrections. In a sense, the conversion hints at the idea of storytelling in cinema struggling to abide with new forms of presenting what we see on the screen, when it comes to history and the ethics of representation. In Chiara’s case, she feels stuck in someone else’s movie, where the director is “still laying out his scraps of the script, trying to figure out his ending,” and tells Magsalin what she plans to achieve in Samar, in the end:
I would like to make a movie in which the spectator understands that she is in a work of someone else’s construction, and yet as she watches, she is devising her own translations for the movie in which she in fact exists. It seems as if The Unintended were constructed out of the story of Samar, but reverse is also true. The Unintended also produces, for us, the horror of Balangiga. We enter others’ lives through two mediums, words and time, both faulty. And still, one story told may unbry another, and the dead, who knows, may be resurrected. At least, this is the hope. Recurrence is only an issue of not knowing how the film should end.
There is a hint of responsibility on Chiara’s future film project set in Samar. Maybe she wants to redeem what her father had stolen or appropriated from Balangiga for a film set in another country, and thus “unbury” the massacre in Balangiga itself, resurrect it from history as mere footnote, and give it a life on-screen. In a sense, Chiara’s project hopes to not so much challenge her father’s film set in Vietnam, but perhaps offset and blur its vision, to recalibrate the ‘wrongful use’ of a massacre in the Philippines for the sake of an artistic vision. A moral imperative, indeed, though I’m not convinced Chiara’s project is about white guilt, but rather a family project of sorts to submerge the temper of her unconscious on the idea of Balangiga in her father’s conception of Balangiga, where the hurdles of creating her project in the islands are most likely minimal, such as translation issues in moving around Samar, in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Michael Caylo-Baradi is an alumnus of The Writers’ Institute at The Graduate Center (CUNY). His work has appeared in Hobart, Kenyon Review Online, Across The Margin, The Common (Online), Eunoia Review, The Galway Review, Galatea Resurrects, MiGoZine, Our Own Voice, Otoliths, PopMatters, New Pages, Ink Sweat & Tears, and elsewhere. He blogs HERE.