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the complete review - fiction
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B+ : bustling, interesting take on history and the memory and representation of it
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The LA Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The Philippine Star
|Alfred A. Yuson
|Wall St. Journal
From the Reviews:
- "(A) risk-taking, cinematic look at Duterteís Philippines and the 1901 Balangiga massacre during the Philippine-American war. (...) Perhaps Insurrectoís greatest weakness is that it is too much of a polemical argument, but when it returns to what you can experience, it has much to offer." - Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times
- "To some extent the novel is tackling the issue of cultural appropriation, but it never ventures close to anything like a crass attempt at resolution, instead using the complexity of its narrative and thematic structure to hint at the difficulty in understanding the confluence of history, power and the individual. " - Tash Aw, The Guardian
- "Gina Apostolís stunning novel Insurrecto offers a nuanced narration that deftly illustrates the power of perspective and the importance of the storyteller while revisiting the complicated history of the Philippines. (...) An arresting novel with a timely political message, Apostolís Insurrecto dazzles with its inventive structure and superb portrayals of women as leaders of ingenuity, creativity and reason." - Rigoberto González, The Los Angeles Times
- "The novel brims with plot. Yet plot is almost beside the point. More interesting are Apostol’s many women, stand-ins and doppelgängers whose stories intercut and complicate. (...) Apostol is a magician with language (think Borges, think Nabokov) who can swing from slang and mockery to the stodgy argot of critical theory. She puns with gusto, potently and unabashedly, until one begins reading double meanings, allusions and ulterior motives into everything. (...) The novelís structure reflects how history comes at us in scattered shards, the way voices are amplified or silenced, story lines invented or forgotten." - Jen McDonald, The New York Times Book Review
- "Unmistakably, the book teems with extravagant instances of writing that are memorable for literary flair. But itís not just that flair, or panache, that distinguishes Apostolís superior quality as an author. Overwhelming evidence of erudition is also displayed on every page. Literary, academic, cultural, experiential and online ďwokeĒ-fulness is brandished; I wouldnít say fiercely, but itís not entirely subtle either, rather much like second nature as a PoMo feature. Littérateurs may nod, swoon or gasp over her audacious turns of passage, which are like multi-level access and egress points through a cloverleaf flyover that leads to sundry highways." - Alfred A. Yuson, The Philippine Star
- "Insurrecto is a deliberately labyrinthine novel but at its core is the relationship between two women. (...) In order to reflect fully on these complexities of a globalized world, Apostol takes in a good deal of the thinking that shapes contemporary understanding in her multi-stranded story. (...) Apostolís novel wears its learning lightly, often humorously, alluding to the irony of theories intended to enlighten that are presented in inscrutable language." - Kate Webb, Times Literary Supplement
- "The game-playing that makes up so much of Insurrecto (...) suggests that Apostol trusts Brechtian alienation to force readers into a rational critical stance. But highlighting fictionality in these many ways is risky. It is an approach that threatens to undermine Ė and in Apostolís hands indeed does undermine Ė the one vital truth at the heart of the story: the injustice of the massacre in Balangiga." - Tadzio Koelb, Times Literary Supplement
- "Ms. Apostol is preoccupied by the ways that history is mediated -- and inevitably distorted -- by artists and journalists, whether through photography, films or books. In the deconstructionist tradition, her own storytelling collapses into its forms of artifice. (...) Insurrecto will be brain candy for the theory-minded, but it leaves the war itself feeling as abstract as ever." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Film is central to Insurrecto, and even beyond that it is a cinematic novel.
An introductory six-page 'Cast of Characters' offers some guidance to what lies ahead in the two-part novel.
Part One is: 'A Mystery', bringing together Chiara Brasi -- daughter of filmmaker Ludo Brasi, in whose professional footsteps she has followed -- and Magsalin, a Philippines-born writer and translator ("hence her professional name: Magsalin. (It means to translate in her maternal grandfather's tongue, Tagalog.)") whom Chiara wants to hire to accompany her as she researches a horrific massacre of Filipinos by American troops in Balangiga, Samar, in 1901.
Part Two is: 'Duel Scripts', as both women come closer to the event -- traveling in that direction, but also via their script-visions of how to present this material (as Magsalin has gone beyond her original remit and come up with her own 'translation' of Chiara's screenplay -- which the latter does not take kindly to: "You are replacing the story. It's not a version. It's an invasion").
Insurrecto cuts back and forth cinematically too.
The text is deliberately structured -- but, as the fact that the first chapter/scene is numbered "20" immediately makes clear, not in the most obvious, straightforward way.
(The chapter-numbering is only occasionally sequential, and often jumps back and forth; there's also, for example, a chapter numbered "16, also 26", while chapter 1 first appears only about a third of the way into novel -- and then additional chapter 1s keep popping up .....).
The novel also moves back and forth across timelines and perspectives, not just Chiara and Magsalin in the present-day, but also from their pasts, including via the scripts, which treat the events around 1901 as well as Ludo's 1970s filmmaking efforts.
The historical event is one that doesn't seem to be widely remembered -- part of Apostol's point.
It is certainly a shocking one:
The Balangiga incident of 1901 is a true story in two parts, a blip in the Philippine-American War (which is a blip in the Spanish-American War, which is a blip in latter-day outbreaks of imperial hysteria in Southeast Asian wars, which are a blip in the infinite spiral of human aggression in the livid days of this dying planet, and so on).
The relationship between America and the Philippines -- historical and lingering-contemporary -- comes up in a variety of ways, including Magsalin's (and, to a lesser extent, Chiara's) experiences in both.
The Philippines of both previous decades and the present-day is full of American references -- music, especially (Elvis, most notably), but also film and, for example, the lingering memories of the 'Thrilla in Manila', the 1975 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Part One: An uprising of Filipinos against an American outpost in Samar (the exposition here would be a fascinating movie in itself, though with too many local color details) leads to forty-eight American deaths, with twenty-two wounded and four missing in action.
Part Two: The US commanding general demands in retaliation the murder of every Filipino male in Samar above ten years of age.
Blood bathes the province.
Americans savage -- "kill and burn" is the technical term -- close to thirty thousand Filipinos, men, women, and children
Magsalin, in particular, struggles with this strange overlay of connections, nicely handled by Apostol.
Manila is necrotized in America, too -- scar tissue so deeply hidden and traumatized no one needs to know it.
One is in the other and the other is in one, she thought, feeling ill in Nashville.
Her self overdubbed, multiplied, intercut, and hyperlinked, but which is to be master, she wondered, feeling dizzy, about to fall (she also had too much Kentucky bourbon).
Chiara is also confronting her own past, in the form of her long-absent father, Ludo, who directed on location in the Philippines in the 1970s -- his own Vietnam movie: "now more or less forgotten, though at one point it was thought The Unintended would challenge the genius of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now -- except be less commercial ?"
And it turns out Magsalin's return to her homeland is also an attempt to deal with a similar great personal loss of her own, that had led her to leave the country.
The 'dueling' scripts have different takes on the Balangiga incident: the one is set in 1901, with a Cassandra Chase, an American photographer witnessing the events, while the other is set in the 1970s, around Ludo's on-site filming (and a filming of the filming ...).
These are very different takes, addressing the subject-matter more, and less, directly.
Insurrecto is a busy novel of overlapping stories and different perspectives, presented in fast chapters, with brisk dialogue and, often, quick sequences of short paragraphs leaping quickly forward across broad swathes of material.
Magsalin is also writing a book -- a mystery -- which is also, of course, this very book; another mystery writer, Stéphane Réal (or not so real ?), also deceased, also figures in the story.
In conclusion, Apostol also offers a finale section of 'Notes', expanding on some of the characters and details, including what happens after the end of (the main part of) the novel (e.g. cleverly re. Magsalin: "Only a few more pages, and her mystery novel will be done").
The overlay and mix of stories is both dazzling and dizzying.
The various stories are very different -- just as Chiara and Magsalin are very different characters -- yet much of the substance at the heart is the same, just seen and re-seen in entirely different ways.
So also for both Chiara and Magsalin this voyage is a coming to terms with significant men in their lives they have lost; typically, too, as different as they are -- and as different as their scripts are -- they carry identical bags (as also in identical baggage, of a sort) -- which, of course, at one point get switched.
At times hyperactive and so dense with its layers of allusion, Insurrecto is a sometimes frustrating but always lively read.
Apostol can overwhelm -- both in approach and in some of the horrors that are described here, down to the physicality of some of the characters (notably one Randles the sergeant, about whom she sums up (but not before going into great detail): "Every orifice in his body is corrupt").
It is an interesting engagement with history and culture -- and the possibilities (and difficulties) of artistic representation and interpretation thereof --, bubbling over with activity and thought.
It is meant to be slippery, and it certainly is.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 November 2018
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Other books by Gina Apostol under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Filipino author Gina Apostol was born in 1963.
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© 2018-2022 the complete review
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