Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


Books: A Casual Revolutionary

The author Jorge Luis Borges once described storytelling as a gauzy combination of fact and dream: "I dream the image of a tree. Waking, I can give this dream a complexity it does not have…Modifying the facts, I spin a tale."  Sol, the storyteller in Gina Apostol's latest novel, Gun Dealer's Daughter, finds herself with a grip on reality as elusive as the waking-life of a Borgesian dream. As she recounts her experience of romance and revolution, her memory tricks her into telling lies and half-truths. It is through this fog of storytelling that Apostol traces the story of a young girl coming of age in the tumultuous socio-political life of the modern-day Philippines.

Gun Dealers' Daughter doesn't explicitly refer to the series of popular demonstrations in the Philippines in the 1980s, which culminated in the departure of the President Ferdinand Marcos and a return to a fragile democratic government, but the novel is infused with its consequences. These student activists at the heart of the novel struggle with the legacy of a country's attempts to build a strong democratic nation after the 20-year authoritarian regime of Marcos. And the role they view for themselves is an active one. As Apostol notes in a recent interview, Soledad Soliman (Sol) and the other student activists have "this notion that history is not a foreign entity imposed upon them: they were makers of it. It's a Marxist view: that the citizen is part of a dialectic, a material maker of one's world. But I think it is also a commonsense, existential view. We are in the middle of history always, we are constructing our reality's novel: what do we do with that?"

                          Gina Apostol

And yet, for Sol, a privileged member of the Filipinos' ruling class, the desire to change the social order must compete with more commonplace emotions like being young and in love. The events, recalled years later by the narrator, are overlain with the haze of recollection, in which facts and emotions compete with one another to merge as invented truth. In one passage, Sol attempts to recall her first romantic encounter with Jed, which is interlaced with her desire to befriend Soli, whom Jed is already dating:

Memory is deception…I have that distinct, sunlit memory of passing Jed with Soli one sharp, milk-eyed noon by the covered walk at the college. I remember that lost, malignant emptiness as I watched them, that wasteful coveting madness as I held up a lunch tray (or was it a book?) in my hand. A holograph: vacuum stasis of desire. But when I did eventually have him, memory falters. As if happiness, possession, were a blank, and only longing counts.

On its surface, this is a tender moment. But this is not a fairytale dream of a kiss, a touch, a fluttering of the heart, but a confused desire for friendship and acceptance. The prose is sharp-tongued and jarring even as it draws upon the wistful tone of a first romantic encounter so familiar in coming-of-age novels. In this way, Gun Dealers' Daughter recalls other skillfully composed works like Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss, in which the love is described as a kind of loss that "reside[s] in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself."

Gun Dealers' Daughter blends together this world of power, munitions, memory and youthful foolishness. Revolution is romanticized; romance is undercut by an awareness of the significance of historical events. "It is horrible how we forget the past, just like that -- we forget how war has killed the best of us…The best among us have died. And it is the cockroaches who survive," says one character. "And then there's us: U.F. Useful fools: that's what we were, you and I, Sol."

In drawing these parallels, Apostol raises questions about the ways romance can serve as a  metaphor for revolution. And while the novel benefits from the perspective granted by the historical events, the characters' actions have real-life consequences that belie the oblique (and somewhat self-serving) dialogue about bad choices. Whether Sol ever gains a fuller understanding of her active role in history, which includes her involvement in a man's death, remains as hazy as Borges's dream of an image modified into a tale. And as readers, we are left with the sense that the comforting dream of foolish youth may have triumphed over the harshness of revolution and reality.

Jee Yoon Lee teaches at the George Washington University and maintains the blog writinglikeanasian.blogspot.com.

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