Review: “Insurrecto” by Gina Apostol

Title: Insurrecto
Author: Gina Apostol
Publisher: SOHO
Publication Date: November 13, 2018
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
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ARC provided by the publisher through Edelweiss


A story within a story wrapped around another story – Gina Apostol’s newest release Insurrecto is a strange hybrid about two countries’ past and two modern women’s present.

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. Chiara is working on a film about an incident in Balangiga, Samar, in 1901, when Filipino revolutionaries attacked an American garrison, and in retaliation American soldiers created “a howling wilderness” of the surrounding countryside. Magsalin reads Chiara’s film script and writes her own version. Insurrecto contains within its dramatic action two rival scripts from the filmmaker and the translator—one about a white photographer, the other about a Filipino schoolteacher.

As much as I love reading historical fiction based off other countries’ histories, I am hungry to see my own country’s history be featured in one, and that was what I was expecting to get in Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto. What I got instead was a mixed bag of a story, one that combines uniquely different strings and weirdly weaves them into one complementary piece.

Starting off with a six-paged Cast of Characters listing down a variety of personalities ranging from historical figures to pop culture icons alongside fictional ones, reading Insurrecto was an experience. I still don’t know what to make out of it honestly. It was confusing and dizzying — out-of-order chapters, a flurry of forward and backward switches between what appeared to be one main character’s movie script and the other’s mystery novel draft interspersed with both protagonists’ present-day experiences with the Philippines, from the gritty streets of the capital, Manila, to the coastal roads of Samar, serving as their backdrop. Still, even with all its tangential ropes, it somehow manages to coalesce into something coherent.

With the 1901 Balangiga Massacre forming its backbone, Apostol uses her two main characters — Magsalin, a Filipino writer and translator and Chiara Brassi, an American filmmaker — to highlight the contrasting accounts with which this dark piece of history between the Philippines and the United States has been viewed and told. It was interesting how the labels differed depending on whose perspective it was coming from like how Magsalin calls the same group of Filipino fighters “revolutionaries” while Chiara views them as “insurgents.” Apostol successfully utilizes this, juxtaposing the two women’s viewpoints to illustrate her point, and she sticks with this message until the very end even as she drive both protagonists to pursue their own agendas.

That said, while I appreciated Apostol’s thoughtful presentation and how well-researched this story was, I did not enjoy this as much as I expected to. Both Magsalin and Chiara felt faraway, flat characters acting as mere plot drivers, and I couldn’t connect with them, feel for them. The way the story was constructed and written also did not help. It was confusing, the language too flowery when things could be stated in a more direct way. I cannot count how many times I’ve put the book down just because of this. It was a distraction from the story this book is telling.

Still, even if this wasn’t a fit for me, I think this is an important book and will recommend giving it at least a try. I could definitely see metafiction readers enjoying how this story played around and broke the constraints of storytelling. Historical fiction lovers may also find something to like in this book. I certainly enjoyed reading about Casiana Nacionales, the only known woman who participated in the rebellion in Balangiga. And with the US is set to return the Balangiga church bells taken as war loot after their troops’ retaliation, I think picking up this book is only fitting.

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About the Author:

gina-apostolGina Apostol’s third book, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize. Her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). She was writer-in-residence at Phillips Exeter Academy and a fellow at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, Italy, among other fellowships. Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York TimesLos Angeles Review of BooksForeign PolicyGettysburg ReviewMassachusetts Review, and others. She lives in New York City and western Massachusetts and grew up in Tacloban, Philippines. She teaches at the Fieldston School in New York City.

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