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.
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?"
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
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
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
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.