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 heavy platforms; he was dressed all in white, with his dull upswept hair. I was always surprised at how red-cheeked the president was […]. I had been told it was the steroids, or whatever nourished the systemic incubus, his disordered kidney and wasted spleen. People in the know said that a machine in the Palace kept him alive […] so that in effect the country was becoming a lupus archipelago, a codependent in synch with the man’s gradual demise.
What can’t be conveyed as well with an excerpt or two is the unusually close relationship between the personal and the political here — not the foreground and background of a period piece, nor even the intersecting lines of the canonical historical novel, but something more like dialectical counterparts, where the one is well-nigh unthinkable without the other, something Frederic Jameson posited as characteristic of third world literature more generally. It’s a coming of age story, yes; Soledad is trying to throw off the identity her family handed her for something better fitting. But more or less from the start, it’s her social class as much as her family that she sees herself in conflict with. At first one suspects this is simple Oedipal rebellion done up to look world-historical. (And which of us has not tried to give his or her adolescent project a little greater import?) Not long after going off to school, for example, Soledad takes up with a boy who will raise a few eyebrows back home, but only a few — he’s a rebel, but also another child of privilege, so he’s their rebel. Then, when she collaborates with him in his smalltime rebellion, which he much too seriously refers to as “night ops,” there is as much fucking as anything else, and the anything else is never much more than the spray painting of a bridge with a revolutionary slogan. Here and there, however, Soledad reveals a perspective on her family where the ressentiment cannot be so easily reduced to family romance. Her description of the president’s birthday concert, for example, concludes, “It was enough to make one turn to revolution.” Such passages leads us to imagine that, however suspect its status at the outset, Soledad’s radicalism is starting to get legs, becoming not just more deeply felt but attaining to something much more abiding — a real revolutionary consciousness.
The truth of the matter, as it turns out, is a bit more complicated, though to say more requires some care, for the book sustains much interest by revealing certain things only in the very end. One wouldn’t call it a mystery exactly, but we are drawn in and pulled along by the prospect of learning how Soledad comes to the terrible place in which we find her at the beginning of the novel, where she twice tries to kill herself. Back and forth the book goes between her family’s Westchester manse, where she has been brought to recover, and her narrative of what led to her crisis, which she is writing to pull herself back together. As it becomes clear that she also feels somehow complicit in her own near destruction, our curiosity only grows — there being nothing quite so alluring as true confession except, perhaps, tragedy, and Soledad’s story is both. What we discover finally is that the radical insight she attained after the trajectory sketched above — from adolescent rebellion to smalltime university radicalism — led to a grisly political killing and the loss of some very dear to her; it’s her remorse that drives her to attempt suicide. Soledad’s error was to join in the most serious of ventures without fully understanding what was being risked, believing that, when push came to shove, her class would protect her. What she failed to realize is that, when it comes to the personal and the political, in the final analysis there is only the political, and the idea of a separate private life is a dangerous illusion.
There is a clue for Gramscian readers who might otherwise find themselves wondering about the fatalism of the novel’s end. (It’s a good deal darker than can be conveyed without giving too much away.) I’m thinking of the scene where doting Uncle Gianni, who never visits Soledad without bringing her some gift, hands her a book by the great Marxist philosopher. It’s an arresting moment. If Apostol’s Manila, with its zombie oligarchy, can be thought of as occupying one of the spiral arms of the postwar galactic order, Gianni is something like the great black hole at its center, his thanatotic nihilism a dark force field that gives everything structure, and it might seem paradoxical that the archfiend would risk encouraging his politically impressionable niece in the wrong direction. Then one remembers that Antonio Gramsci was the theorist of hegemony; all Gianni risks here is Soledad’s learning the great sad truth of history from 1917 down to the Great Shock of our own time, namely that modern capitalism’s political institutions seem to protect it even from crises like the current one, which call its whole legitimacy into question. The period Apostol is writing about in Gun Dealers’ Daughter is yet another dumbfounding example of this politics of transformismo, whereby, in Perry Anderson’s words, “radical pressures are gradually absorbed and inverted by conservative forces, until they serve the opposite of their original ends” (quoted in Hedman and Seidel, Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century [Routledge, 2000], p. 13). Only when the repercussions of Marcos’s 30-year tyranny threatened the Filipino oligarchy itself was he driven from power, leaving the opposition to settle for neocolonialism with a different face or a death squad. And so while her comrades end up body parts on the killing fields, Soledad serves out an equally dark fate as a latter day Bertha, the mad prisoner of gothic privilege. If all this seems rather distant from the here and now, one only has to reflect on how our own political institutions have kept us from reckoning with the root causes of the current crisis — in the spring of 2009, Obama famously told the bankers, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks” — or on the way a kind of neocolonialist rule of law appears to have come home to roost with the War on Terror. Apostol has given us a tour de force tale about late-20th-century Manila, but Gun Dealers’ Daughter is also a book for our times.