Book Review: INSURRECTO, revisiting the 1901 Balangiga Massacre

Apostol, Gina - InsurrectoInsurrecto: A Novel
Gina Apostol

Chiara Brasi, a director, has arrived in the Philippines to make a pilgrimage to Samar where her father, Ludo, also a director, filmed his Vietnam War movie, The Unintended. She hires translator and budding mystery writer Magsalin who grew up in the Philippines but relocated to New York to accompany her on the trip.

So that Magsalin might understand the purpose of her visit, Chiara sent her a copy of a script she planned on shooting in Samar herself. Magsalin took issue with the script and rewrote it with what she believed was a more appropriate perspective.

At the center of the scripts lay the 1901 massacre in Balangiga. A village of insurgents or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view, attacked a U.S. army outpost and killed most of the soldiers. In retaliation, the army killed anyone in the region who could bear arms against the U.S.–males older than ten–and halted trade, including the arrival of food. Historians estimate anywhere from 2,500 to 50,000 Filipinos were killed.

Insurrecto imagines Casiana Nacionales, the only female in the historical records surrounding the massacre, as a leader against the U.S. army, organizing the women and facilitating the release of the men who were imprisoned as forced labor. How she and her allies achieve this is actually quite funny and draws on Apostol’s delight in puns and word play. In the fictional account, American photographer Cassandra Stone witnesses the initial attack and the aftermath.

In the context of the novel, some critics saw The Unintended as Ludo’s retelling and critique of the army’s actions in 1901, with similar events and the movie drawing from historical names to identify the characters. It was also in the Philippines that Ludo disappeared from Chiara’s life.

Insurrecto layers the story of the Balangiga massacre, the imagined history of Ludo making his final film and what happened to him, and the interactions between the two women. However, this is all on a shaky foundation as it’s never quite clear who is narrating the book at most moments. Certainly, this is by design. In interviews with Apostol I read after finishing the book, she stressed that the voices of colonized and colonizers were intertwined and their stories could not be told independently. Alone, their narratives would be incomprehensible.

Over and over in the novel, too, events are mediated by lenses of cameras or through mirrors, and it’s particularly interesting how Cassandra poses her photographs which become popular in the United States but also contain misleading implications about relationships and are accompanied by incorrect captions.

How grief informs history and memory and how history (as we know) is written by the victors, echoes throughout the book. Some characters, though, like Chiara’s mother Virginie, crave forgetting, and Virginie refuses to stay in one place, living in sterile hotels devoid of reminders.

I really enjoyed reading about the events of 1901, which I’d not heard about before, and learning about Casiana Nacionales. It might not be a coincidence that this is also the most linear and straightforward part of the novel.

While I very much respected the themes Apostol developed, overall, I didn’t enjoy reading Insurrecto besides this subplot. The chapters were presented out of order with several chapters 1. I’m sure there is a pattern to this, but I am not invested enough to analyze it. Outside of the historical story, I never felt on a solid foundation in terms of the narrator or whether the events were in fact happening or just part of Magsalin’s writing process.

When I was telling my husband about Insurrecto, he said I was too square to like the book, and he might be right. This pushed the boundaries too much for me to ever just relax and take pleasure in the story or the writing, though I certainly applaud Apostol and her risk-taking. I think whether you like the novel will depend on how much you fancy non-traditional narratives. If they are not for you, you probably won’t like Insurrecto. However, if they are something you find pleasing, you’ll probably love the book.

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