Book of the Month: Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

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Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
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Innovative, meditative, and the best of both worlds. These are just a few of the many words that could describe Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto. This hit novel depicts a sociological phenomenon wherein two women, a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker, go on a road trip in Duterte’s Philippines, collaborating and clashing in the writing of a film script about a massacre during the Philippine-American War. Insurrecto being a military fiction collides histories and personalities literary tour-de-force about the Philippines’ present and America’s past by the PEN Open Book Award-winning author of Gun Dealers’ Daughter.

Within the spiraling voices and narrative layers of Insurrecto are stories of women—artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters—finding their way to their own truths and histories. Using interlocking voices and a kaleidoscopic structure, the novel is startlingly innovative, meditative, and playful. According to Penguin Random House, Insurrecto masterfully questions and twists the narrative in the manner of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Apostol pushes up against the limits of fiction in order to recover the atrocity in Balangiga, and in so doing, she shows us the dark heart of an untold and forgotten war that would shape the next century of Philippine and American history.

Viet Thanh Nguyen describes Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto as “meta-fictional, meta-cinematic, even meta-meta,” describing the labyrinth of meaning-making and obfuscation that forms the bedrock of the text. But more than that, Apostol uses the whole gamut of literary gimmicks to destabilize the reading experience, from chapters that are numbered out of order to a series of endnotes that are not so much expository as they are creative musings (Flores, 2019).

Alongside with this, Insurrecto is divided into two parts. “Part One, A Mystery” establishes the main plot of the story, while “Part Two, Duel Scripts” shuffles back and forth between Magsalin and Chiara’s dual scripts. Gabrielle Flores, a writer of Cha Journals, also emphasized a point that it is hard to argue that this book will be read outside of the literati spheres. The out-of-order chapter numbers is a trick that quickly grows tired. The fact that the titles of all the chapter ones come together to form a sentence is an observation only a keen reader (or someone writing a book review) would try and look up, let alone find interesting.

These gimmicks could be read as concessions to the larger literary market that Insurrecto wants to fit into. The question of audience naturally comes up with regard to postcolonial novels—who is the book trying to reach?

Reading Insurrecto in the Philippines, you’d expect a more definitive re-take on this period of history. “Anti-imperialists are touchy people,” Apostol writes, acknowledging the pressure put on authors like her to set the record straight.

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