Soledad Soliman, aka “Sol,” poignantly observes about life in general but, more specifically, her own situation: “The mind at the best of times is a ruinous house, with traps.” Those traps are apparent almost immediately in Gun Dealers’ Daughter, widely praised when it was first published two years ago in the author’s native Philippines. The statement is especially poignant because Sol has attempted to commit suicide twice and, as a result, spent time in various hospitals. The time frame for most of the incidents in the story is the 1980s, but they conclude thirty years later when Sol is still anything but stable—that complicated have the situations she was involved in been on her psyche.
The novel is every much about the Philippines as it is about Sol’s situation within her family. As one of her uncles tells her when she’s still young, “The Spanish conquest of the Philippines was cruel, rapacious, and ignorant.” He later adds, “That’s the sadness of the Philippines. It was raped by plan. Of course, the Spanish already had a blueprint of governance in Mexico. So the rapacity was lockstep, well-developed, despicable.” Earlier there was Magellan’s barbarity and then much, much later the Americans—especially during the worst of the Cold War. The same uncle (in the arms business with Sol’s father and their other brothers) will subsequently justify his work by remarking, “We didn’t invent war, bloodshed, pettiness, rivalry, nationalism, tribes, dictatorship.” True, they didn’t, but is that an excuse for profiting from other people’s misery?
(Unfortunately, that question holds no geographical or time restrictions, but I dare not go there).
When still a child, Sol hates the ostentation of parents’ and uncles’ lifestyles:
overwhelming opulence in the face of dire poverty in the country, class distinctions that are impossible to eradicate, continual attempts to impress others. Worst of all are the attempts by all her parents’ friends to mimic anything Western, especially by surrounding themselves with expensive, gaudy imports. One sentence will serve as an illustration. When Sol—still in secondary school—leaves the room where she has been forced to sit through a meal with all her teachers who were invited to her parents’ house to impress them, and she notes, “I retreated from the dining room the other way, through the hall of Chinese prints and Italian vellum books and my father’s lacquered faux-ancient Singaporean opium den.” I won’t bother to include a description of her mother’s attire.
At the university in Manila, Sol begins associating with radical students who mostly share the same concerns that she has about Philippine lifestyles, especially the country’s economic disparities. But the scene which acts as the catalyst for her true rebellion occurs at a Christmas ball, given annually by her mother so she can display her wealth. Drunken guests in costumes end up in the swimming pool:
“A Frenchman fell into the pool, bringing his lovely transvestite companion with him. If he weren’t a consul, my mother would have thrown him out of the house when she saw him arrive with two tarts, one chocolate, the other Cambodian, a gorgeous boy in velvet and feathers. The two men floated in the warm water, like large fowls dipped for plucking. I watched their beautiful sequined clothes rise like bedraggled wings; their slender calves acted like ballast before they went under. When they emerged, heads up, they had their tongues in each other’s mouths, a well-rehearsed act, and people clapped.”
It’s not long before Sol is aiding her university friends, helping them get a cache of her father’s and her uncles’ sophisticated guns. The student revolutionaries justify their intent because “The [Marcos’] government is using private armies for its own purposes.” Sound familiar? Indeed, yes, even though their plan takes on a strange permutation of its own, as people die who shouldn’t, and as Soledad Soliman has a nervous breakdown resulting in a split personality that becomes relevant to the novel’s inventive structure. And that complex narration is, in fact, one of the major strengths of this classic example of madness and trauma, repression and guilt.
Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter is a haunting study of misplaced actions by corrupt governments and the naifs who believe they can make them accountable.
Gina Apostol: Gun Dealers’ Daughter
Norton: 294 pp., $24.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org