The Life of a Filipino Freedom Fighter, Relentlessly Annotated

By Gina Apostol

Virgil should offer libations to the gods in thanks that Gina Apostol writes about the founding stories of the Philippines instead of those of Rome. His latest novel published in the United States, “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata”, turns the life and work of the 19th century writer José Rizal upside down in a playful and scholarly way. Apostol captures the catalytic relationship between his fiction and the contemporary Filipino independence movement, whose success in ending imperial Spanish rule has been qualified by five decades of American involvement.

“Raymundo Mata” was first published in the Philippines in 2009 and won the country’s National Book Award. Since then, Apostol has published two highly acclaimed novels — “Insurrecto” and “Gun Dealers’ Daughter” — in the United States, where she now lives. She writes historical fiction like Hilary Mantel on acid. The result is demanding, confusing, exhausting and awe-inspiring, and justified, at its core, by the origin story of his native archipelagic nation, as one of the many voices in this novel explains:

“The American Revolution had farmers and dentists. The French Revolution had a crowd of advocates.

“Our main driving force was a poet.

“The Philippines is perhaps the only country whose war of independence began with a novel (and first novel) — Rizal’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (‘Touch-Me-Not’).

“Our notion of freedom began with fiction, which may explain why it remains an illusion.”

This account of Rizal’s literary and political significance comes from Estrella Espejo, a writer who now lives in a sanitarium because of a particularly trying project. The novel takes the form of a memoir found by a fictional revolutionary named Raymundo Mata, whose idiosyncratic entries are analyzed and debated by Espejo and others in numerous annotations, themselves prefaced by no less than seven introductory notes. . From an American prison cell in 1902, Mata tells the story of his life growing up as the visually impaired child of provincial theater actors and joining the Philippine independence movement. Dissidents coalesced around Rizal, a novel-writing ophthalmologist who attacked Spanish rule if he never outright called for an end to it (his arrest and eventual execution would help bring it down instead).

Although fiercely attached to both men, Espejo is not particularly concerned with clarifying details related to Mata’s Bildungsroman-like life or Rizal’s passive involvement in revolutionary politics. She’s more interested in raging, via annotations, against the English-language translator of the memoirs, a bloodthirsty Cornell graduate student who goes by the pseudonym Mimi C. Magsalin and describes herself as “not abd yet.” The editor is also attacking Diwata Drake, a Milwaukee-based psychoanalyst and specialist in the Filipino experience who claims she was asked to edit the memoirs in place of Espejo after her depression.

The novel’s deranged scholarly outlines are manifested in a short per-page passage from Mata—usually about his readings, travels, and intrigues, political and romantic—which is otherwise dominated by multiple rival footnotes. The results can be both confidently obscure and also very, very funny, as with notes 466-469, in which Magsalin and Espejo exchange vicious etymological claims about the gastro-geopolitical implications of whether Rizal and Mata ate the chicken Caesar salad when they first met in 1896. In other words, like “Infinite Jest” and “Pale Fire”, Apostol’s novel adopts absurd premises that are treated with serious seriousness by obsessed narrators by puns that are both unreliable and cerebral.

Apostol also riffs on the Bible, Cervantes, Voltaire, Joyce, and the most prominent Filipino writer of the late 20th century, Nick Joaquin, among many others. Dizzily preoccupied with its own textual genealogy and the Borgesian speculations that flow from its frenzied notations (is Mata’s memoir in fact Rizal’s last unrecognized novel?), the book sometimes seems to have been more fun to write than to read. But that’s a minor footnote to this wonderful jumble of Filipino tales.

Thelma J. Longworth