Insurrecto – by Gina Apostol, 2018

Here’s a new book I haven’t read. I’m writing about it now to give the author a boost and reward her for writing a novel that tackles the complex relationship between the United States and the Philippines on many levels.

The publisher Soho Press describes the book as a military history but according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Apostol’s fourth novel is “meta-fictional, meta-cinematic, even meta-meta, plunging us into the vortex of memory, history, and war where we can feel what it means to be forgotten, and what it takes to be remembered.”

Wow, that’s what I call heavy meta!

From the author’s website, https://www.ginaapostol.com/praxino-org, I’ve learned a little about the plot: It begins in the present, with Chiara, an American woman filmmaker, heading to Samar Province to work on a film. Balangiga, Samar, was the site of a 1901 attack by Filipino insurrectos on an American battalion. In retaliation, Americans massacred the insurrectionists, or as Apostol says, “Soldiers created a howling wilderness of the surrounding countryside.” Sounds like Vietnam to me.

Few Americans have heard of the Philippine-American War, which was a bloody awful practice run for the even bloodier American War in Vietnam. Beginning in 1898, U.S. Army volunteers fresh off the farm found themselves in Southeast Asia using an early version of the submachine gun and an early version of waterboarding, against an enemy they called niggers and goo-goos. It was a war fueled by jingoist American nationalism and latter-day imperialism. Don’t tell a Filipino that America never had any colonies.

The plot takes a few turns when the filmmaker’s translator, a Filipina mystery writer named Magsalin, reads the film script and decides to write about the massacre from a Filipina’s perspective. If Google Translate is not mistaken, the Tagalog word magsalin can mean “translate,” “transfer,” or “transfuse.” I suppose Ms. Magsalin can be seen as an artistic insurgent in a cultural war.

We’ve all heard the quote “History is written by the victors” but in modern literature we find that history is also written by the survivors, and by professors and students of history inspired by them.

According to the website blurb,

“Within the spiraling voices and narrative layers of Insurrecto are stories of women — artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters — finding their way to their own truths and histories. Using interlocking voices and a kaleidoscopic structure, the novel is startlingly innovative, meditative, and playful.”

Let’s listen to these spiraling, interlocking, innovative, meditative and playful voices and learn from them.

With Hearts Aflame – by Victor M. Ordonez, 2002

While you’re focused on the Philippine-American War, I’ll discuss With Hearts Aflame, A Historical Novel.

Full disclosure: I have history with this novel. Over several years of envisioning this project in the 1990s, originally as a screenplay and later as a novel, I helped the author shape the American character. However the novel – with all the Filipino nuances – was masterfully written by a dear friend of mine while he was battling cancer. Dr. Victor Ordonez was a Renaissance man who served the Philippines and later the United Nations Organization with distinction and sophistication. Everyone who knew him misses his intellect, his wit, his warmth and his loving ways.

The American hero Lt. Tom Wilcox arrives in the Philippines on a scouting mission in 1886, while the archipelago is still a Spanish possession. A keen and passionate observer, Wilcox sends periodic reports to Army General Wesley Merritt in San Francisco, analyzing Manila’s potential as a regional trading post. But Merritt wants more. As America is rattling sabers in preparation for war with Spain, Merritt asks Wilcox for military intelligence on the strength of Spanish forces and their armaments, and the loyalty of their locally recruited troops.

During his reconnaissance, Wilcox falls in love with the Philippines, and with a fiery Filipina named Coring. It’s no surprise that he also falls in with the brave Filipinos secretly plotting to oust Spanish overlords after three centuries of oppressive and cruel colonial rule. Wilcox vows his love for Coring and his devotion to the cause of Filipino self-rule ignited by the patriot Dr. Jose Rizal, who is then awaiting execution. In this fictional retelling of the martyr’s death, Wilcox smuggles Rizal’s last poem, Utilmo Adios, out of prison in his boot. The book’s title comes from a line in the poem that speaks of Filipinos who fight in their country’s name “with hearts aflame.”

Unfortunately, President Grover Cleveland and Governor William McKinley are not dancing to the merry tune Wilcox is playing. After Commodore George Dewey vanquishes Spain’s Asiatic fleet in Manila Bay, General Merritt arrives with the U.S. Volunteers of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to wrest control of the country from the remaining Spaniards.

The proud Castilians won’t give up without a fight but the Battle of Manila in August 1898 is a sham, its outcome predetermined. The Spaniards agree to surrender and the Philippines (named after their King Philip) is nominally free of a European power. They surrender to the Americans, not the Filipinos, and under the terms of the surrender, no armed Filipino may enter the capital. In other words, the Americans, who were supposed to be helping the Filipinos, are taking control of Manila, and snatching victory from away Emilio Aguinaldo’s Katipunan revolutionaries down in Cavite.

When Coring learns that Wilcox was with General Merritt at the surrender ceremony aboard the ship Ayuntiamento, she’s confused.

“Her mind could not wrap itself around the Americans’ betrayal and Tom’s possible role in it. She thought she knew Tom so well, but now with this turn of events, she felt maybe she did not know him at all.”

A few months later, with the Filipino independence movement in utter disarray, Coring has even more reason to doubt Wilcox’s love for her and the dream of a free Philippines. It is with an aching heart that Wilcox sends her a letter describing the events of February1899 at San Juan Bridge, the first bloody skirmish between American soldiers and Filipinos. (Spoiler alert: the battle does not go well for Wilcox’s Filipino friends and their cause.)

Wilcox writes to Coring:

“My dear Heart, The last few days have been tragic… General Otis has declared outright war against the Aguinaldo forces… I am lost. I joined the military of my country as a young man full of ideals and principles, ready to lay my life down in the fight against evil and injustice. Now these armed forces have become instruments of evil and injustice.”

The U.S. Army hunted down the originally anti-Spanish, then anti-American revolutionary leader Aguinaldo and captured him in 1901, effectively ending his term as the first President of the First Philippine Republic.

Celebrating America’s first counterinsurgency victory in Southeast Asia, President William McKinley put the archipelago of 7,100 islands under the American flag. William Howard Taft, the first U.S. Governor General in Manila, and later 27th President of the United States, said Filipinos – whom he called “our little brown brothers” – would need America’s assistance for 50 or 100 years before acquiring the requisite Anglo-Saxon skills for self-rule. It would be half a century before the Philippines achieved full independence.

The cover art featured on both this book and Insurrecto by Gina Apostol are works by Ben Cabrera. Learn more about this renowned Filipino artist at:

http://www.bencabmuseum.org/national-artist/