Insurrecto by Gina Apostol was first published last year and has won multiple awards. Despite a few flaws, I found this to be an excellent book that incorporated many innovations and at times approached brilliance. Apostol touches upon colonialism, different perceptions of reality, the ways in which our personalities are constructed and more. She infuses all this with interesting and complex characters and plot threads. Apostol was born in The Philippines but now lives in America. She infuses a lot of American and The Philippine history and culture into this novel.
The plot of this book is difficult to describe because of its many layers. The story takes place in multiple time frames. Some of the timeframes exist within the book’s reality, other timeframes exist as film scripts that exist as part of the primary plot. The scripts are, in part, based on historical events but are, in part, fictional. The movie scripts also contain doppelganger characters that are kind of like fraternal twins existing between the realities. This all sounds confusing, but reading the book was not as confusing as all of this sounds. However, the threads were sometimes a little difficult to follow and I am glad that I read this book on a Kindle so that I was able to search for character and place names and go back and refresh myself. On one hand, this intertwining of realities often was interesting and innovative and fit into the novel’s theme perfectly. On the other hand, I did think that all this muddled book a little and that it marred some good character and plot development.
The main plotline takes place in 2018. Two women set out on a trip across the Philippines from Manilla to Samar, in order to conduct research for a film. Chiara Brasi is the filmmaker and Magsalin is a translator and writer. Chiara is the daughter of the deceased art film maker Ludo Brasi. Ludo and Chiara are kind of stand - ins for Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sophia Coppola. Years earlier, Ludo made a Vietnam War film in Samar, a large island in The Philippines, called The Unintended. This all parallels Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which was also made in The Philippines. In the world of this novel, Coppola and Apocalypse Now also exist, but Ludo’s The Unintended is known as another, less commercially successful Vietnam War film.
Magsalin is a woman born in The Philippines but who is now living in America who travels and lives in intellectual and cosmopolitan circles. She is hired by Chiara to assist her in the filmmaking.
There are two scripts for Chiara’s film, one written by Chiara and one written by Magsalin. One script, or at least part of it, as is told throughout the course of the book, takes place in the 1970s and is about Chiara’s father Ludo, her mother Virginie, and his father’s mistress, a Filipino schoolteacher named Caz. Ludo’s suicide is a major point of the film.
The other script, takes place in 1901. It concerns events that occurred during The Philippine–American War. This conflict occurred after America seized the Philippines from Spain. Philippine rebels, fought the American military for years in an attempt to gain independence. During the conflict, an incident known as the Balangiga massacre occurred. During that time a unit of 48 Americans soldiers were ambushed and killed by villagers in the town of Balangiga in Samar. In the ensuring months the Americans retaliated and burned Philippine villages and killed thousands of innocent Filipinos. There is not a lot of controversy about these events, the United States Army official account acknowledges that atrocities occurred and multiple American officers were and court martialed and found guilty of committing war crimes. The movie script centers on the American unit and the Filipino villagers involved in the initial attack.
The book is in some ways written in a postmodernist style. That is, cultural references, both highbrow and lowbrow are constantly being thrown at the reader. References to great literature, art, the Bible, etc., abound. The story is also infused with popular culture and history. References and commentary on topics such as Elvis Presley, Mohamed Ali, the war in Afghanistan, etc. abound. All this ties into the book’s themes. The rapid fire throwing all of these elements into the mix reminds of the novels of Thomas Pynchon or Salmon Rushdie. I generally like this style when done well and I thought that it was well done here.
There is a lot going on in this book. There is a moderate amount of political and historical undertone. Events about the Philippine – American War and the Balangiga massacre are tied throughout the narrative to other American actions especially during the Vietnam War. The underlying message is that the United States has acted like an imperial power throughout history to the detriment of much of the world. This brings up a few issues. First, I think that if a literary work, and I think this book can claim literarily status, becomes too in -your - face political, it detracts from the work. On the other hand, I think that a moderate amount of political and social commentary do not mar a novel. In fact, some great fiction, dating back centuries, has incorporated this kind of underlying theme. I find that while this novel may skirt the line a little bit, Apostol keeps it subtle enough not to distract from her art.
The second issue is the politics themselves, I cannot tackle the entire broad subject of American foreign policy over the past one hundred and twenty years within this post. However, I will mention that I think that American actions on the world stage need to be examined and at times criticized. There have clearly been times, such as during the Philippine - American War, that American actions have been unconscionable and atrocities were committed. Likewise motives for American intervention throughout the world have not always been entirely pure. However, the United States and other democracies have also had an enormously positive impact upon the world. I believe that the positive effects have far outweighed the bad stuff. It is hard to pigeonhole the precise political beliefs that Apostol espouses as this is fiction, but I sense that Apostol’s message is a little too simplistic in reference to these issues. With all that, one gets the sense from this book that Apostol loves and is fascinated by American culture. It brims over in almost every page. In addition, Apostol does not demonize individual Americans, for instance American soldiers at Balangiga are flawed but generally humanized.
I would describe the primary theme of the book as postmodernist. I should note that I have criticized postmodernism when it is applied to politics, ethics and social issues. The postmodernism here is more about commentary on the human experience. I actually like books that play with these concepts in this way. What I mean by postmodernism is that the novel is full of different and malleable points of view as symbolized by the two film scripts. Also the tendency for Apostol to throw out a plethora of cultural and historical references at every turn supports the postmodern themes. We are reminded on multiple occasions that there are conflicting historical claims about the Balangiga Massacre. Different characters living in different times seem to have doubles.
Chiara’s film is described as,
It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018, in any case not quite her father’s ’ 68 — no one will be the wiser . There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues , a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable ( quite thin ) plot , and while the mystery will seem unsolved , to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.
I think that the above quotation encapsulates very well the picture of life that this novel tries to build and is key to understanding the book’s themes. There may be as reality out there, but everyone perceives it differently. The reality is also often bewildering as it consists of so many different things.
Apostol also seems to be suggesting that people are constructions of the kaleidoscope culture and experiences that they live through,
It is not an uncommon condition, this feeling of being constructed out of some ambient, floating parts of a worldwide emporium
This is a thought - provoking and enjoyable novel. I found almost every page to be interesting. I thought that it was a bit flawed as the characters and plot were often developing and headed toward interesting places but seemed to get sidetracked by the disjointed nature of the story. Nevertheless, I found this to be a satisfying read. It was also fun despite some of its tragic plot points, I would recommend book to anyone who likes modern literature.
the "satisfaction of unrelieved despair" is a curious phrase... in some ways it resonates with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with which Apocalypse Now was supposed to have had a connection to... themes of persistence in the face of hopelessness as represented by the human condition i suppose... interesting book and review: tx...
Hi Muddpuddle. That line and other things here do seem to have some connections with Heart if Darkness. The is the trip through the Philippines who may parallel Conrad’s trip up the river. Many the Jungle here is American and Philippine culture.
"Convoluted" hardly seems a big enough adjective to describe this book. You seem to have found a lot of pleasure in reading it, maybe partly because of its convolutions. I reread Heart of Darkness last year and this does seem to have much of the same feel to it. Interesting.
Hi Dorothy - I think that it is to Apostol’s credit that while convoluted, the book was generally not confusing.
I would describe Heart of Darkness as dark and ominous, though this book was dark in places, it mostly has a playful feeling as it through all sorts of cultural, historical and literary stuff at the reader.
You have made me want to read this novel, Brian! Last year I read another Philippines based novel, America Is Not the Heart (https://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2019/04/america-is-not-heart.html) and I have wanted to read more. The books and authors you compare this one to also intrigue me. I don't mind convoluted if the story and writing are good.
I think that you might like this Judy. Pynchon and Rushdie are such worthwhile and innovative writers. I am off to check out your commentary on America is not the Heart.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this novel, and for the intro to this work. That you found every page interesting says a lot. The various, varied time frames sound intriguing. Terrific commentary, Brian Joseph!
Thanks Suko. This was a book that held my interest.
a powerful review of mighty book i must say dear Brain
your mastery over your art of conveying is overwhelmingly captivating !!!!!!!!
i think i want to read this book as soon as possible ,as it sounds to speak finely bout topics i am deeply interested in.
through your wise commentary it seems that in spite of all the effort writer made to keep herself out of taking sides book sounds a peaceful protest
thank you for sharing it so beautifully that feel so compelling Brain!
thank you for amazing job always :)
Thanks Baili. I think that it is OK that a writer takes sides sometimes. I am even OK if I do not entirely agree with their political and social point as long at it is made artfully.
Thanks for sharing your comments on what sounds like a complex and interesting novel. The mention of doppelganger caught my attention as that is a genre that fascinates me. The references to American imperialism also resonate as that is what I consider part of the dark side of American history.
Hi James - dopplegangers are interesting. Here, the two different movie scripts have these twin characters.
I think the United States taking of the Philippines was outright imperialism and impossible to justify. There is a school of thought that sees American imperialism everywhere one looks. That is a view that I disagree with.
This sounds like a good read, but with heavy themes.
Hi Debra - Indeed there are some big themes here. I think that is true of a lot of good and great literature.
Hi Brian! It does indeed sound rather confusing, but I am interested in the Coppola theme. If it has already won all these awards in the year or so it has been out, I’m sure it’s going to do well. Who knows? Maybe it will spawn its own Apocalypse Now!
Hi Sue - It would be interesting is Apostol came out with a script or at least a story based on the Unintended.
Hi Brian, excellent commentary on this book. Throughout my life I have gravitated to conventional novels. But your review has me thinking I need to stretch a bit and as you say Apostol's novel might be convuluted but its not confusing There is a way to read modernist literature that I have to learn
Thanks Kathy - I think some modern works are more difficult then others. This book was fairly accessible. I am currently rereading Gabriel García Márquez‘s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I would classify that as postmodernist but very accessible. If you have not read that it seems a good place to start.
Excellent review, Brian. I appreciate your even handed handling with this book. I'm going to go to Amazon and read other reviews and an overview. Have a great week.
I have to comment on one of your comments. I agree that it is OK to make sides, as you say as long as it is artfully done. There are a number of writers whose views I don't especially agree with, but I enjoy their writing.
Also, I think it's OK to take sides as long as you successfully and effectively support your arguments.
This book, with its multi-layers and time periods, would feel somewhat like watching a ping-pong game. It is intense, fast paced, and one has to pay attention.
Clash of Cultures--This is a unit I put together for gifted students. Conflict of European superiority and Native Americans, other vulnerable nations. He who has the biggest weapons wins.
" it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair." resonates. I'll be thinking about that for a while.
Ive never really been able to get my head around the term ‘post modern’ and I haven’t read many newer/modern books. What would be
a ‘classic’ post modern book?
Hi Sharon- Yes Indeed. There is a way to make points about politics, social issues, history, etc. in fiction that works and a way that does not work. I think about Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things which tried to make points about social issues but that did so in-artfully.
Hi Susan - Sometimes the book did feel a little like a ping - pong.
The interaction between American and Philippine culture was actually most interesting in the parts of the book that took part in the 1970s and in present time. It was shown to be a real mash up and not at all negative.
That is a great quote.
Hi Carol - There are many definitions and the term is used in different contexts. In terms of postmodern literature I characterize it as lots of ideas, images, concepts and styles thrown at the reader very quickly. The author seems to do so playfully. Usually the author throws these things out without commenting on them. Often there is an underlying set of ideas that center on the concept that there is no objective truth. If there is truth, it is based on one’s perspective.
The most emblematic postmodern novel that I have read is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
Enjoyed your review. Sounds like an interesting and complex book, but enjoyable.
Not sure if this would be a bit too heavy for me but I do enjoy reading your thoughts on it. I quite like books that have historical facts/info in it xxx
Thanks Lainy. It did have lots of lesser known history.
Wow this novel does sounds multi-layered. I like the film script aspect of it. The author seems talented in her ideas & how she's put it together. And I definitely could use learning more about the Phillippine-American War. thx for the review.
Hi Susan - I lot of folks who are interested in history, including myself, could learn more about that war.
Apostol really does display talent here.
Oh dear, I haven't heard of this book at all, but I love the sound of it - two people writing film scripts. How fascinating.
And I know what you mean by "I am glad that I read this book on a Kindle so that I was able to search for character and place names". I prefer print books but the kindle does come into its own in situations like this doesn't it?
What do you think was the driving idea behind the novel?
Hi WG - Yes, the ereaders are very good for this sort of thing.
I think that the main point here is to illustrate and play with the way people’s view of reality is malleable. I also think that the author tried to say something about American foreign policy.
MMM! That's an interesting cover, it certainly made me sit up and pay attention.
Its no mean feat to write a book in which the readers finds something of interest on every page and thus for this reason alone I can understand your enjoyment of this book The very fact that it seems to have had lots of lesser known history will also have been a big draw.
Hi Felicity- I agree that is s great cover.
I often find lesser known history fascinating.
Hi Brian! This book sounds very much like metafiction, which (I believe) is popular these days. I will probably never get to this one, as I have so many on my to-read list, but I enjoyed your take on the book.
Hi Rachel - There was a fair amount of meta fiction in the book. That added to the book’s appeal.
There is so much to read. It is hard to get to everything.
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