Arts

Book Review

A trippy, cinematic novel of American atrocity in the Philippines

The US Army command of Colonel Summers marching to battle at Maasin (Moasin) in southern Leyte in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War in May 1899.
William Dinwiddie/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The US Army command of Colonel Summers marching to battle at Maasin (Moasin) in southern Leyte in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War in May 1899.

About halfway through “Insurrecto,” Gina Apostol’s formally playful, morally serious new novel about the Philippine-American War, we encounter the following passage: “Our vision is imperfect, only surmise. A disparity exists between the sight observed by the right eye and by the left. Notice. In order to see correctly, the mind must compute . . . Not like a machine. Our mind imagines. That is how we see. Through illusion.”

Here, Apostol describes stereopsis: our ability to mentally integrate the differing images provided by our two eyes into a single, three-dimensional image. The information provided by each eye is fragmented and flat; it’s only through mental trickery and fanciful triangulation that we get depth, that we begin to approach the real. To see the world as it actually is, it seems, requires an act of the imagination. How could a novelist not love such an idea?

“Insurrecto” is a truly stereoscopic work, giving a rich, textured sense of history through the proliferation and integration of its many fragments. The novel cuts between plots (there are many) and histories (they are all contested), between genres and styles, moving with great velocity despite the book’s great variety.“Insurrecto” revolves around dueling film scripts, one written by a famous American filmmaker named Chiara Brasi about a white female war photographer who chronicled a US wartime atrocity, the other by a Filipino mystery writer and translator named Magsalin whose heroine is the Filipina lover of Chiara’s filmmaker dad. (Magsalin works as Chiara’s translator as the two travel through the Philippines together.)

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The novel also features a lacerating depiction of “the infinite spiral of historic slaughter” that is the legacy of American imperialism; longish stretches of realism featuring crisp, precise detail (“Connell has the rigid posture of a man pretending he doesn’t sweat”); and longer stretches of metafictional noodling: “Why should readers be spooked about not knowing all the details in a book about the Philippines yet surge forward with resolve in stories about France?” It can be wickedly funny: Magsalin describes Chiara’s “vacant gaze” as “her RCF: resting celebrity face.” And it can be, and often is, ferocious in its political indignation.

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Pick one of the many figures offered by the novel itself: a palimpsest, a translation, a stereoscope, an abaca weave. “Insurrecto” is all of these things — a polyphonic work that challenges the reader to keep up with its plotting and to think with or against or through its complex moral reckonings.

At the novel’s vibrating center lies the Balangiga massacre, which took place on the Philippine island of Samar in 1901. Apostol describes the event in appropriately stereoscopic terms: It is “a true story in two parts.” First, there was an act of rebellion, an “uprising of Filipinos against an American outpost in Samar . . . lead[ing] to forty-eight American deaths, with twenty-two wounded and four missing in action.” Then, the Americans lashed out in reprisal, with the “US commanding general demand[ing] in retaliation the murder of every Filipino male in Samar above ten years of age.” Estimates of Filipino deaths vary and have been the source of controversy; Apostol writes that close to 30,000 men, women, and children died.

I suspect most American readers won’t have even heard of Balangiga. From the American perspective, Apostol writes, the event is “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).” But the American perspective isn’t the only one, and “Insurrecto” forces us to look at Balangiga again and again and again, each time from a different lens: from that of 1901 and of the 1970s and of the now; from the lens of the colonizer and the colonized; from the lens of a writer (Magsalin) and a filmmaker (Chiara).

To be clear, these binaries — now versus then; colonizer versus colonized; novelist versus filmmaker — are themselves exploded within the novel. “Insurrecto” deconstructs and unsettles, which is not to say that things like truth and history don’t matter. What happened at Balangiga matters greatly. It matters to those who were slaughtered and to those who did the slaughtering, of course, but also to those who arise in some way from that slaughter. (Which is to say, it should matter to all of us.)

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Rather, Apostol implicitly argues that we move toward truth and history by indirection and multiplicity; not through a story but through stories. At one point, a character thinks, “She does not quite know how to put it, this fragmenting sense of herself, except that it is the only way she can get at who she is.” That summarizes Apostol’s understanding of the self but also her political and novelistic vision. In “Insurrecto,” fragmentation isn’t a road block. It’s a route.

INSURRECTO

By Gina Apostol

Soho, 316 pp., $26

Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’