A Moment in the Sun
From John Sayles, a "sprawling, wide-screen, Technicolor" novel of the Spanish-American War.
Two state executions frame the plot – and the politics – of John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun.Skip to next paragraph
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The first is carried out behind the walls of the Spanish military compound in Manila. The year is 1896, but the operation is Inquisitional: A petty political criminal is "judicially asphyxiated" via garrote – that is, strapped onto a seat as a metal band is slowly cranked tight around his neck. The few witnesses include soldiers and priests, and Diosdado Concepción, an undercover Filipino nationalist with an Eastman Bullet camera concealed under his coat. The gruesome snapshots will appear in an insurrectionist paper. Diosdado, one of about a half-dozen rash young men at the center of the concentric orbits of "A Moment in the Sun," is henceforth a fugitive, smuggled in the hold of a banana boat to Hong Kong, and further into history.
The intervening years – and pages – witness an American battleship mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor; the American yellow press turning the incident into grist for war and increased circulation; and the American army and navy dealing a devastating defeat to Europe's oldest colonial power, forcing it out of the New World for good. Greeted as liberators, the Americans grant Cuba a dependent sort of independence. They annex outright the other archipelago a decaying Spanish Empire had held since the 16th century. Nearly won by 1898, Diosdado's Philippine Revolution finds a new oppressor – one with the vigor and wherewithal to brutally crush the uprising. In 1901, a world's fair called the Pan-American Exposition opens in Buffalo, equal parts valediction for the 19th century and hemispheric coming-out party. There, McKinley is shot.
At Auburn, Manila's burly executioner, a condemned man himself, gives way to a bureaucratic switch-thrower – the medieval garrote to Thomas Edison's electric chair. Another recent Edison invention is banned from the actual proceedings over the Wizard's protestations, but nevertheless sculpts the plot of Czolgosz's demise out of sequences of arriving trains, jockeying reporters, and exterior prison walls. Movie cameras can do that.
Is it fulsome praise, backhanded compliment, or full-frontal sneer to call "A Moment in the Sun" a book that is, above all else, cinematic?