by Andrea Macalino
▶︎ What makes memory so powerful?
Is it the ability to whip out loss after loss? Is it some Freudian trap, from which there is no escape? Is it an unnecessary repertoire of happiness, that sheds pale light on the present?
Sadly, I am not here to propose that Gina Apostol‘s Gun Dealers’ Daughter answers directly any of these questions. If anything, Apostol’s work following The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata leaves the reader wanting — not for a sequel, but for the same relief of longing that the novel’s Soledad Soliman seeks, round and round, with no end in sight.
It is a novel, however, with no assurance. It has depth, that much is apparent; but the sorrow it plumbs is one which impinges too closely on cyclic despair, for it asks, again and again, that one question that betrayal is incapable of answering satisfactorily:
But perhaps, unlike Sol, we must start at the beginning, plow through in medias res and put aside, for now, what we know of the harrowing ending. Formally speaking, what is remarkable about Apostol’s novel is that it makes real that which is so often romanticized.
Riveting from a knot that untangles from a woman’s pain, Gun Dealers’ Daughter neatly folds into itself the concept of linear time. Somewhere in its fluidity, we understand that the painful memory from which stems this backward forgetting, this anterograde amnesia, happens in the era of the dictator.
But here there is no rewinding of time, no textbook recall; the face of your elementary history teacher disappears before it can entrench itself into your vision. Soledad tells the story of that time as solely hers, igniting in the readers’ mind what is a landmark in Philippine history but flavoring it with tangibility so fine and well-wrought that you would be tempted to claim intimacy to what, beforehand, you may have possibly recalled only in school uniform patches or chalkboard lines.
Soledad’s time, the one that involves the dictator, is so fresh and so real because the character brings to the table the disparity which the reader is familiar with (and this, as you should know, is telling already of the market targeted by the novel), for it is the disparity that occurs not so much with groups of people who are visibly from different classes, but with the groups who belong to the same class, and who, in a time of chaos, fancy themselves something else altogether.
The novel plays not merely with the illusion of teenage love, but with the illusory power to save others, to redeem self.
The novel is a song of painful memory because it selects, wary in its backtracking, careful observations that feed into its own why.
This novel is one of privilege so blatant, it only properly becomes vulgar.
Years later, the static Soledad reminisces about the norm of so elitist a life:
A childhood in charmed places–summers in Boston and springs in Bruges, wherever it was my parents held their meetings or met up with their globetrotting suppliers–this was the least of my rewards. As a child, I looked forward most to those pure days of pleasure when we met up with Uncle Gianni, in Venice, Dublin, or Virginia. He had no children and had no clue how to raise me. He bought me masks scary enough to meet the Red Death there at the spotless atelier of a mustached mascharere above the Rialto. He haggled over the price of an Islamic prayer rug for my own amusement in Riyadh, and at the Grand Hotel in Rimini he offered me my first and only whiff of opium…Everything was permitted: more gelato, more jewels, more shoes, more toys (Apostol 86).
Sol (pampered daughter of munition masters, husband and wife Frankie Soliman and Reina Elena “Queenie” Kierulf, together with their accomplice, Sol’s beloved Uncle Gianni), is thrown into the world of Diliman, in a year for recuperation while her menarchal disorder rages. Unbelievable, almost, the memoir’s claim that she understood so little of her own native tongue, or that she knew nothing of the endless rhyme that her idol, twin, namesake, foil, friend Solidaridad Soledad tells her, on their first day of freshman orientation, rattling off on the similarity of their names and throwing into the mix the tongue twisting: La Solidaridad, El Filibusterismo, Noli Me Tangere.
Solidaridad, or Soli for short, becomes a paragon to which Sol holds herself against, and as such, the relationship is one of classic peer-mentorship. Soli is motherly but condescending; Sol is eager to please but adamant. Soli knew not only the lines on textbooks but the textured taste of poverty, the horror of the deprived/depraved, while Sol was only beginning to string together the lessons which every Filipino child consumed as part of elementary education in her freshman year of university, learning fast but not fast enough, the gaping cavity between book-fact and stark reality.
Obscurantism, [Soli] said, does not serve change. The therapeutic couch may be necessary — at least for some, she said pointedly. But it is not the place for action. Next time you drive home to Makati, she said, look around: all you need is to look out your limousine’s window to know that it is a problem to be living the good life in such bad times (Apostol 112).
Still, the novel is slow in its, unraveling, for certain. There are moments when you wonder whether the prose has any point at all. But wittingly or no, the impatience of the reader is soothed – -not altogether, like an almighty ballast that bulldozes even as it anchors, but it does remind the same reader that Soledad’s damaged memory is a puzzle, that its incoherent parts fit in a chaos that centers on the very thing it struggled to save.
Confused by her own bearings, Sol joins Soli and her left-wing activist group, designated with the task of collecting 25-centavo coins in a tin can of Fox glacier candy (remarkable too, is Apostol’s ability to connect seemingly unrelated details to patch up the smallest possible plot holes, for this seemingly useless task is explained later). Other than that, however, Sol implies that her involvement in the group, at least before the advent of her nightly runs with Jed, was inchoate, travelling through the spectrum of naivete-veiled ignorance.
In turn, it is in the character of Jed that the reader senses a poignant hopelessness — not because of who he is, but because he is the paradox that Soledad cannot fathom and thus aches for. Crowned with light curls, famously wealthy and descended from Antonio de Morga of Sucesos de las Islas de Filipinas fame, Jed is described as a charming young man whose effect on people is mixed with natural bravado and the wardrobe of St. Francis. For Sol, he is a quintessential factor in her double-edged affinity with Soli. He is, after all, a shared piece of the game, the one Soli tried to absolve but whose involvement was so like the carousel later on in the novel (not one of Apostol’s best metaphors, but the easy logic in the face of an unraveling timeline and long-stringed prose is much appreciated). He is there, in Soledad’s heart, but the question mark he draws about her validity is as much a slap in the face as it is an old lover’s hello.
Still, Sol is not so immersed in amnesia that she does not admit complicity:
Memory is deception. There’s a pall over which intentions lie, gross as an astrologer’s ball. Otherwise, it’s very clear how one thing leads to another. Curfews are good alibis. At the astronomer’s tower, you look for a star, you go for a walk, no one is around. You find a clearing, moves are quick, though still surprising. Words are only incidental. Though you have initiative, you do now know where it might lead. Chess players would be disgusted by obvious openings. Dramatists would deplore my crude prologue. But desire has only pathos; action has rewards (Apostol 63).
Here, as in the blurb full of promise about a novel that “[probes] the role of the individual, the role of all of us, in complex times,” the dynamics of Sol’s relationship with Jed works in tandem with the cog work of a student-activist’s lifestyle, such that community feeds into politics as it does love and lust. When Sol and Jed, Soli’s boyfriend, are found out, it is not merely a matter of a third-party scandal, but more importantly, a stain upon the group’s aims, goals, ideology.
Immediately, the name of their crime is revealed to Sol, in the abbreviation S.O. that means Sexual Opportunism. In the aftermath, Ka Noli, activist and eloquent speaker, asks Sol for her talambuhay — her own account of her life which would have necessitated her to reveal the source of her family wealth, her admission that the dictatorship and imperialism they were rallying against were fed by her parents’ business. Thus Ka Noli says to her, in a farewell that echoes the self-righteousness of the Left, the civility of modern society, the pity that the enlightened reserve particularly for those who live pampered lives, “We hope one day you will be a part.”
No one, however, is ever able to define what it means to “be a part.” As a native reader, we get the sense that “to be a part”, linguistically and literary-wise, as in the novel, the character means not merely makisama, but makibaka. But until where does the trajectory reach? Does the end of one man’s dictatorship, the success of a clumsy assassination attempt, the dispersal of students who were members of an activist group signal the end of action?
For all that Soledad is burdened with memory, with remembering events that everyone else denies, or deems as necessary for the group’s case to mobilize, it is a remembrance without catharsis. In the end, it is not full circle that Sol achieves but a downward spiral, a continuous why without a how for it refuses to come to terms with the problems of the present.
From the very beginning Sol has described herself as a split soul, and it is just so as the novel closes. What, then, is the better choice for us readers? Those of us who were born and raised and continue to struggle in hellish Manila, those who are self-proclaimed not-so-upper-middle-class yet not so desolate as to know the embrace of poverty, where is the middle ground?
How does one remember history in order to face its repercussions and avoid its repetition, how does one look to the future with hope, when one is struggling to pay the bills and wanting to get the latest gadget, cursing but desiring capitalism in one stroke? How does one look at the street beggar in the eye and realize that poverty is the exception, not the rule?
For after all, that is where the novel falters. The fact that it speaks with the eloquence of a privileged young woman, who even in her years of exile thrives in material comfort (though without much joy), that it has been published by a major publishing house, that it has been talked about both in the Philippines and abroad, also makes us wonder: how effective can this impetus to action, contextualized and produced as it is, be?
How can its essence be extended to precisely those who are not its direct audience, but whose existence deals, daily, with the crudeness of this split-soul society?
In the end, is it better to have moved on like the rest of the novel’s characters — Sally Vega, Edwin Cardozo, Jed de Rivera Morga — or to exist in stasis, remembering what those who have moved on easily forget, that which perhaps, holds some key to the development of a country that debates a woman’s right to reproductive health, blames the poor for its rookie senators, but preaches in its churches: love one another as you love yourself?
There is a middle ground, yes. It is not the best choice, and it holds within it no solid, guaranteed-to-work promise of salvation — for any class — but how would any one of us walk it? Better yet, perhaps it is time to dare ourselves to take a side that’s anything but middle, in a time where so many choose no side at all.
For the challenge of the novel is not for Soledad to pick herself up and start going again, ending stillness. It is for its readers to end the cycle themselves, and realize that history is movement, ex stasis, and thus necessitates action. ***
Andrea Macalino is a graduate student of Comparative Literature. This was published in her blog in May 2013.