JS Tennant


Insurrecto, Gina Apostol, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 336pp, £12.99 (paperback)

I’ve always had reservations about reviews that liken books to film. It’s too easy to draw parallels between, say, sweeping visuals, swift or dialogue-driven narrative, and cinematic technique. I’m often left wondering how a novel – the experience of sitting down to read one – can ever really be like cinema.  

So, I am now about to liken a book to film. I don’t think the Filipina writer Gina Apostol, author of the excellent Insurrecto, would mind such hypocrisy. After all, it is a novel about two film-scripts based on an historical event, and a famous (fictional) filmmaker who has committed suicide. The filmmaker, Ludo Brasi, shot one of his classic works, The Unintended, in the Philippines in the 1970s. At his death he left ‘a jumble of numbered note cards in a rubber-banded package, a sketchy map, an unfinished script, a trip not taken. A plot about a crime of history that no single vision can redeem’.

The crime in question is the aftermath of the Balangiga revolt of 1901, when occupying US soldiers murdered thousands of civilians in Samar in retaliation for the killing of 48 of their own (by rebels, or ‘insurrectos’, as they are disparagingly known). Ostensibly arriving as liberators at the end of the Spanish-American War, having helped throw off the Spanish colonial yoke, the US proceeded to control the islands for 50 years. The reprisals following Balangiga, the harrying and burning of the whole island, are atrocities that resonate to this day. This unfinished project of Ludo Brasi’s may well be why his daughter Chiara, now a filmmaker too, decides travel to the Philippines and persuades the local translator Magsalin to help her.

If you look for such things in a book, there certainly aren’t any easy answers in Insurrecto, which contains countless red herrings. The narrator sets various narratives side by side, both fictional and (seemingly) real. Magsalin does not think much of Chiara’s script and takes it upon herself to write her own. Chiara casts a local woman who had an affair with her father as her lead; Magsalin’s lead, which is contemporary to the Balangiga revolt, is played by a beautiful, Lee Miller-esque, Manhattanite photojournalist. Magsalin is wary of Chiara’s artistic appropriation of her country’s painful history; Chiara can’t understand why Magsalin needs to foreground the perspective of a western ‘white saviour’ figure.

Their opposing scripts run parallel alongside one another amongst the prose, outlining the road journey the two of them make together (under armed escort) across the islands. There are flashbacks and jump-cuts and the chronology of the book is shuffled, like the ruled note cards Ludo Brasi used to plan the sequencing of his films. Narratives bisect in parts, or nest inside each other like Chinese boxes. If this all sounds confusing, it is also fun. Ludo – whose name implies a game – was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, and reading Insurrecto is like trying to solve a locked-room mystery in which questions, not answers, are key.

Chiara and Magsalin depart the grime of Manila and its shopping malls but never quite arrive at their destination. On the way, they are beset by motorbike thieves disguised as clowns and questions about what they’re really trying to achieve. What happened at Balangiga animates everything, but arriving there is beside the point. In a typical act of doubling (both women spent time living in New York and some of their youth near Balangiga) highlighting the tangled contingencies of any venture or motive, we find that Chiara and Magsalin are also driven by grief: ‘Love is the site of their wounding’. For Chiara, filmmaking is a tonic for the loss of her father.

This ‘impulsive clueless spiritual adventure’, so enjoyable to read, is dead serious too. Insurrecto is about perspective and what lies beyond the frame of the camera lens. These women’s stories are an accommodation of disparate strands that destabilise prevailing narratives; they pose questions about narration and who gets to do the narrating: one person’s insurrectionist is another’s freedom fighter. The book’s title proudly reclaims the label insurrecto – a catch-all term for the enemy – in the name of Casiana Nacionales, the real-life character (and sole woman) who joined the Balangiga rebellion, but about whom little is known.

Within the pages of Insurrecto, art meets history and is found lacking. But in its rough-cut structure this book about ‘a film with a void at its heart’ is a crucial reminder of those who are written out of official histories. The subtext is serious and the book’s narrative games buoy up the whole reading experience. It’s true that the Balangiga aftermath foreshadows – with depressing continuity – later events such as Vietnam and Abu Ghraib, but this is also a novel about Elvis Presley, karaoke, uprootedness, and Muhammad Ali’s Thrilla in Manila.

Insurrecto deals in double-identities, switched bags and puzzles. Its many manila envelopes, containing notes and scripts, hold, too, Poe’s purloined letter which may be hiding answers in plain sight.

Words by JS Tennant.

To buy Insurrecto by Gina Apostol, visit Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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