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Witty And Stylish, 'Insurrecto' Offers An Inside View Of The Pain Of Colonization

Ever since I was young, I've loved stories set in the far-flung reaches of the West's many empires — from the British Raj of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India to the surreal Vietnam of Apocalypse Now. And I still love them, though I now realize that they usually look at other cultures from the vantage point of outsiders, even intruders.

That's why, these days, I seek out books and movies that show how the world appears from the other side of the colonial looking glass. One of the most original ones I've found is Insurrecto, a dizzying new novel by Gina Apostol, who was born in the Philippines but now lives in the United States.

Beginning in a present day Manila overseen by thuggish President Duterte, this witty, sneakily revelatory book dives into something that most Americans know virtually nothing about — the tortuous relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines, which America colonized for 50 years after claiming to liberate it from Spain in the late 19th century.

The story starts when our heroine — Magsalin, a Filipina translator and mystery writer — goes to Manila's Muhammad Ali Mall (yes, that's a real place) to meet Chiara Brasi. She's a fashionable American filmmaker, whose father shot a funky Vietnam War picture in the Philippines (shades of Sofia Coppola).

Although Magsalin doesn't particularly like Chiara — who, we're told, has "resting celebrity face" — she agrees to help with her new script. She even accompanies her on a road trip through the countryside to the town of Balangiga, the site of a dark episode during the Philippine-American War that led to colonization.

So far, so straightforward. But after Magsalin reads Chiara's script, she begins writing one of her own. Soon, we're reading two rival versions of scripts — one about a Daisy Buchanan-ish white American war photographer in the Philippines, the other about a Filipina schoolteacher who's had an affair with Chiara's dad.

Before we know it, reality and fiction are cross-pollinating — there are stories about telling stories, and every character seems to have a double. And we start wondering why the chapter numbers are appearing in the wrong order.

Now, I must admit that Insurrecto does require readers to cope with a few moments of disorientation. But let me assure you that the novel goes down easily and becomes clearer by the end.

For Apostol is no mystifier or arid avant-gardiste. Rather, she's playful like Italo Calvino or Kurt Vonnegut. She dishes up funny riffs on everything from the "Thrilla in Manila" and her countrymen's love of Elvis Presley to what the book terms the Filipino Chekhov Rule: If you mention karaoke in the first chapter, somebody has to sing it in the last one.

For all its fizzy style, Insurrecto is anchored in the pain of lived history. Magsalin and Chiara's road trip is a way of exploring an episode that I'd never heard of — one that, like the Philippine-American War itself, we haven't so much forgotten as repressed. It happened in Balangiga in 1901, where — with help from a woman insurrecto, or revolutionary — Filipino locals attacked occupying American soldiers.

In retaliation, U.S. Col. Jacob Smith, who served with Gen. George Custer and was every bit as enlightened, ordered his soldiers to kill everyone over the age of 10. And they did. Estimates of the dead range from 2,000 to 50,000.

Insurrecto gives us this barbaric slice of our national history not through guilty American eyes but through furiously good-natured Filipino eyes, which hope we'll grasp two things. First, that we will never understand the modern Philippines, in all its warmth, humor and violence, without knowing the story of places like Balangiga. And second, that we can't understand modern America without knowing the stories of what we did in our past.

It's Insurrecto's great achievement that it confronts us with dreadful things without ever turning into an accusatory, anti-American screed. See, Apostol is after more than recrimination. Steeped in the love-hate relationship with American culture she shares with most Filipinos, she actually seeks to transcend the gap between the two countries.

Near the end of the novel, Magsalin's rowdy uncles belt out a famous Elvis song about romantic agony that she terms the soundtrack of her life. "We can't go on together," the uncles sing, "with suspicious minds."

And that's what Insurrecto seems to be saying about America and the Philippines. We are bound by history, Apostol tells us, but our relationship can never be truly happy until everyone is honest about who they are and what they've done.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.