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A mesmeric pastiche, a cleverly hilarious indictment, a vicious, unapologetic tour-de-force: Gina Apostol’s INSURRECTO is an astonishing literary masterpiece. With a measured hand and a biting voice, she explores the blatant, often-untold atrocities of America’s actions in the Philippines.

The premise of the novel is centered on two women going to the Philippines to make a film: an American filmmaker, Chiara Brasi, and a Filipina translator, Magsalin. The book, as well as the proposed film, centers on the incident on the island of Samar, in the town of Balangiga, and the ensuing, devastating slaughter of Filipinos by American soldiers. Philippine rebels were murdered en masse in retaliation to an attack on U.S. forces. Chiara and Magsalin witness the same history and present, but the stories they experience and tell diverge.

"A mesmeric pastiche, a cleverly hilarious indictment, a vicious, unapologetic tour-de-force: Gina Apostol’s INSURRECTO is an astonishing literary masterpiece."

Apostol weaves history and memoir with reverie and reportage, expanding specific incidents and glossing over certain context. She pushes the boundaries of fiction in thrilling, expert swells and dives of lyricism and style. She zooms in with the eye of a filmmaker, leans back into scope with the eye of a documentarian, revels in detail and truth with the heart of a poet. The very duality of the premise sets the precedent for the multiple perspectives and identities she explores and peers through during the course of the novel.

I am an American, but my mother was born in Batangas, in the Philippines. As a reader with an intensely personal connection to the bloody conflicts between these nations, as well as one for whom the current tensions between Duterte, Trump and these nations’ citizens are immediate and serious, this brilliant novel is thrillingly refreshing. Apostol speaks the unspoken. She sees this history, this present and the Philippine people who are caught in it, and recognizes within it a horrendous, literary, political web fraught with story. It does so well to be told by her voice.

However, you don’t need to be Filipina-American to appreciate or adore this novel. You don’t even need to know much of anything about the Philippines, or its history, although you may come away from the book curious to read more. As Magsalin says to herself, “A reader does not need to know everything. How many times has she waded into someone else’s history, say the mysteries of lemon soaps and Irish pubs in Dedalus’s Dublin, or the Decembrists’ plot in Dostoyevsky’s THE DEVILS, or Gustave Flaubert’s Revolution of 1848 in what turns out to be one of her favorite books, SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION, and she would know absolutely nothing about the scenes, the historical background that drives them, the confusing cultural details, all emblematic, she imagines, to the Irish or the Russians or the French, and not really her business --- and yet she dives in, to try and figure what it is the writer wishes to tell.”

Do not be intimidated. Treat INSURRECTO like the masterpiece that it is, with patience and an open mind. Within it I found the poignancy of women artists, the fallibility of storytelling, the savage truth that is America, something like the word for home. I found this novel to be revolutionary, reclamatory, restorative, bitingly funny, eminently wise and sophisticated, an insurrecto in and of itself.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on November 16, 2018

by Gina Apostol

  • Publication Date: August 20, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press
  • ISBN-10: 1641290927
  • ISBN-13: 9781641290920