“If you knew that your parents sold arms that prop up your country’s military dictatorship, what would you do?” Twelve-year-old Sol (Soledad Soliman) overhears her American School teacher pose the central question of Gina Apostol’s novel Gun Dealers’ Daughter to his colleague after dinner at the Soliman home in Manila. But it is Mr. Fermi’s emphatic disgust at the Solimans’s shady transactions and tacky extravagance that implants “a dart, a punctuated clarity” about the dubious origins of the family’s affluence into Sol’s pubescent body, afflicting her like “something ingrown, an infected thing.” The memory of it presages Sol’s intermittent feeling of “nausea, an elemental eruption: this split in my soul,” a divisive dis-ease about her and her family’s place in Philippine society. Though Sol eventually comes into political consciousness—acquiring knowledge about her parents’ import-export business, the prosperity it generates, and its complicity with both Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’s “conjugal dictatorship” and U.S. backing of the authoritarian regime—and though she acts decisively on that knowledge, her disoriented and disorienting, self-consciously faulty recounting of martial law in the Philippines (1972–1986) is far from triumphant: more an indictment than a vindication of her youthful deeds.
Published by Anvil in the Philippines in 2010 and by Norton in the United States in 2012, Gun Dealers’ Daughter marks Apostol’s U.S. debut and carries forward the combination of literary play (punning and allusion, metafictional reflexivity and humor) with historical reconstruction and political irreverence featured in her previous novels, Bibliolepsy (1997) and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (2009). The novel opens with the psychically and bodily wounded protagonist arriving in Nice, France, then being shipped to her family’s mansion in New York to resume her convalescence. Repeating several times the phrase “repetition is the site of trauma,” the novel gradually unfolds the causes of Sol’s dizzying derangement. She is diagnosed with anterograde amnesia, a condition in which her memory stalls at the traumatic experience, and compulsively returns to her single semester at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, circa 1980. Writing years later in a room overlooking the Hudson, Sol wonders whether words can make her whole, if language can save her, if “[t]his work I am doing right now could become a hesitant, crepitating—talambuhay [life story]? A reckoning. A confession.”
Addressing would-be well-off radicals, on the one hand, and readers ignorant of U.S.-Philippine history, on the other, the novel presents Sol’s rueful confession of her brief, explosive flirtation with activism some thirty years ago and her part in the assassination of Colonel Grier, as well as a critical reckoning of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines and neocolonial support for Marcos’s dictatorship. While commentators since at least the Reagan era have asked why working-class constituents vote against their economic self-interests, the question is rarely asked of the other side. What would provoke the progeny of moneyed parents surrounded by seductive, sedative comforts—servant-filled mansions in Manila and New York, summer vacations in Europe and the U.S., casual, competitive mingling with Manila’s upper echelon—to act against her family’s investments?
The puncturing sense of malaise Sol suffered when she overheard Mr. Fermi’s disgust intensifies when she leaves the familiar luxuries of her home and enters college. Breaking through her class and cultural obliviousness and countering the socialization she received as “a member of the damned burgis…, the comprador bourgeoisie,” Sol’s politicization takes place under the tutelage of her university peers: Soli (Solidaridad Soledad), a tried-and-true organizer and demonstrator, and Sol’s tokayo (name-twin); Jed De Rivera Morga, Soli’s daytime golden-boy lover whose pedigree and fortune are even more estimable and execrated than Sol’s; Edwin Cordoza, the humorless fellow bookworm; and Ka Noli, the elder lecturer on the tactics of people’s war. More inclined toward Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, James Joyce, and Gustave Flaubert, Sol is instructed to...