IN HER BRILLIANT NEW NOVEL and American debut, The Gun Dealers' Daughter, Filipino writer Gina Apostol creates one of the most compelling characters in recent fiction: Soledad Soliman, daughter of a wealthy arms merchant during the Marcos years, useful fool and maybe worse. Soledad herself pieces the story together for us — of how bad turned to worse — and whatever one makes of it finally, she holds our attention to the last word with what is almost, yes, a writer's sensibility and style. Here is just a snippet of her striking portrait of Uncle Gianni:
His skin was taut and smelled of citrus, a fading scent of cleanness. You could smell that all over Uncle Gianni: the masculine smell of fastidious men. He was not so much tanned as burnished, as if he had just spent days on a soccer field, soaking up Manila's sun, and he had this tendency, in drink anyway, to blush soul-deep, so that he gave the impression of giving his heart to you […] [but with that] thin sneer of a mouth, an upper lip that turned white or invisible in speech […] my godfather at times seemed canine. And with that aristocratic nose, so admired by the maids and Manila's socialites, and troubling thinness of his elegant bearing [… he had] the air of something mixed: of something maybe feral and human: a whippet, a wonderfully domesticated beast.
It's as deft a sketch as something from Fitzgerald, and the happy accident of the able storyteller is contrived with so much greater grace than in too many new books, where narrators sound like writers no matter what their fictive places in life; Soledad's verbal intensity we grasp as that of a bookish only child with a cosmopolitan upbringing. Apostol even allows her to overwrite here and there, to slip into a precious or self-indulgent style, sharpening our image of Soledad as a stunted character. (For a sense of Apostol's own impressive stylistic range see also her first novel, Bibliolepsy, already a kind of contemporary classic back home in the Philippines, though now out of print. Soon, I would think, some alert publisher will bring this book out in the US.)
Soledad’s fate is inextricably entangled with broader social changes in the Philippines of the 1980s, and Apostol takes us back to those dark days in some of the most memorable scenes in the novel. In an extraordinary set piece of several pages, Soledad describes the Filipino oligarchy in full plumage, as it were, at a piano concert in celebration of the president's birthday. The lurid chapter might have been called, "Night of the Living Dead"; from the cadaverous Manila matrons to the febrile American guests, it’s empire’s end as zombie world. Every fine shade of class rot is depicted for us here — the vulgar, the banal, the ugly, the small. When the president and his wife finally arrive, the grotesquerie reaches pharaonic heights:
They came: security men in blue shirts, a flurry of mean-looking people with […] pitted faces, as if chosen for their physical defects, so that the terrors of acne acquired deep meanings in a debased society […] Then the celebrants themselves […] in glacial motion, like the Israelites before Moses's parted waters. Even without signals from the guards, people stepped back to create a path, an invisible cordon of their awe. The couple came closer, the slow, shorter one first in his everyday heels, white...