Philippine National Book Award–recipient Gina Apostol is a novelist with a penchant for unlikely heroes. Gun Dealers’ Daughter, her American debut, is no exception. The bulk of the novel offers the confession of Soledad Soliman, or “Sol,” a wealthy young woman turned communist rebel who had participated in a murder plot against an American counterinsurgency expert in Marcos-era Philippines. Sol writes her confession while suffering from anterograde amnesia: she can only remember events prior to the one that caused her dementia. “You recall only trauma,” her doctor says, “[y]ou do not exist productively in the present.” The amnesiac Sol joins Apostol’s repertoire of socially invalid characters: the young heroine of Bibliolepsy (1997), suffering from a sexually charged mania for books and dictionary definitions, and the eponymous blind revolutionist of The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (2009), whose degenerative nightblindedness becomes a metaphor for the problems besetting Philippine historiography.
Sol’s account of the events leading up to the assassination revolves around a handful of troubled memories: her parents’ complicity in the Marcos dictatorship through their global armament business; her participation in a radical university student group whose members masqueraded as modern-day ilustrados in their conspiracy against the dictatorial regime; and her adolescent infatuation with Jed, the group’s Maoist scion, who, like Sol, belongs to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful families. Sol’s confession takes place thirty years later at a New York City mansion overlooking the Hudson River; the novel’s retrospective temporal structure thus mirrors its cross-hemispheric perspective. We learn that in order to relieve the vertigo caused by her amnesia, Sol has to relive these memories again and again, obsessively returning to the site of trauma by circling around “the same incidents, the same scenes, the same details.” To piece together the puzzle of her confession is to spiral down Sol’s mental breakdown.
The novel represents the amnesiac mind as “at the best of times … a ruinous house, with traps.” These traps are reflected in the elliptical, nonlinear manner in which Sol presents her confession. There are numerous inconsistencies, odd juxtapositions, and repeated details that serve less to illuminate than to confound our understanding of her blinkered past. Sol’s first-person voice is a classic case of unreliable narration, yet we come to understand that her words nonetheless enable her to summon her past by materializing her history. In one moment of recall, for example, Sol writes, “I am pounding my fist into the soil, pounding the tulip bulb into a pulp”—a sentence that makes the act recollected visible on the page as an image of b’s typographically upended into p’s.
This is history from above—atop the mansions of Manila’s wealthiest neighborhoods and inside the wrecked psychology of “a spoiled brat [with] a split soul.”
Sol’s “mad, syllabic combinations” and “sudden dysgraphic bouts” become both traps and clues in this psychological thriller. The result is a stunning and lyrical word-portrait of a “martial-law baby” whose story of teenage romance and rebellion allows Apostol to braid together a wider set of issues: memory, history, language, nationalism, exile, and revolution. These may be familiar themes in postcolonial fiction and Philippine literature, but they gain a renewed significance in Apostol’s hands. By routing the narrative through Sol’s mind, Apostol furnishes an ironic, often satiric, frame for looking at the retinue who profited from the US military–backed Marcos dictatorship. This is history from above—atop the mansions of Manila’s wealthiest neighborhoods and inside the wrecked psychology of “a spoiled brat [with] a split soul.” Surprisingly, the unlikely vantage point of Manila’s highest class strata enables Apostol to present a profound critique of this period in contemporary Philippine history.
Gun Dealers’ Daughter is an engrossing if challenging read not only because of its complex narrative structure but also because it asks hard questions about the possibility of revolution. Can the likes of Sol and Jed, progenies of the nation’s powerful caciques, “member[s] of … the comprador bourgeoisie, with links to feudal lords,” reeducate themselves to bring about real social change for the masses? Can an elite that lives outside the country’s rules subvert them toward more progressive ends? How do we measure the successes and failures of revolution? In Apostol’s novel, we inhabit these questions from within the unhinged mind of an arm dealer’s daughter, which makes the work a new kind of social realism, one that opts less for representing hard facts than for accurately portraying shadowy encounters with history in a country “founded on delusion” and condemned, like Sol, to repeat the traumas of its neocolonial vicissitudes.