Dream Jungle by Jessica Hagedorn, The Disinherited by Han Ong
When people think of the Philippines, many think of shoes, and lots of them -- Imelda Marcos’ Givenchy eight-and-a-half stilettos littering the grand presidential compound. Or even worse, Philippines is stamped in the memory by the stink of inept and corrupt politicians, terrible natural disasters, violent Muslim insurgents, Communist guerillas deep in the jungles, and the rampant prostitution that makes it seem anybody is up for sale. But the true legacy of the Philippines is its enduring appeal as the “bus stop capital” of the world. Anybody who’s anybody has been through these islands at least once. Successive waves of Indonesians & Malayans sailed to the islands in its early history, and Arab sea-faring merchants in the south were followed by the momentous (or tragic, depending on your point of view) arrival of the Spaniards bringing their gifts of a Catholic god, total conquest, an alien Western culture, and a brutal brand of colonialism. Chinese entrepreneurs and Americans came and stayed overly long while the Japanese were briefly in power during their bloody reign in World War II, and then, finally, the Philippines eventually acquired a kind of dubious independence marked by many coups, one dictator, lots of shoes, and every category of misfortune that the gods can throw on one little country.
The constant state of conquest and then the inexorable and overwhelming presence of American pop culture have put Philippines in a rather unique situation apart from other countries -- Philippines’ loss or absence of any “true” Filipino culture. Yes, there is a “culture” made up of various elements taken from the conquering countries, but ask any educated Filipino about a unique type of culture and you get a shrug, an insecure look, and a question, “We have a culture?” To many of its citizens, expats, and children of immigrants, the cultural legacies of the Philippines appear to be a hodge podge of many other things, a Frankenstein kind of creature cobbled together from the disparate parts of more powerful nations: a devoted and dogmatic Catholicism, Chinese food, Spanish words, Malayan or Chinese faces, and even a little Arabic. What you get is a strange creature that is just ripe for literary exploration. The stories of cultural confusion, the widespread poverty, the pool hall hustlers, the pimps, the pretty girls, big time mobsters, ethnic Chinese millionaires, communist guerillas, and every variety of the human experience -- from the deep feelings of insecurity about being a little nation in the shadow of more powerful ones to the pervasive inferiority complex in the typical pinoy’s psyche -- provide a rich and fertile ground to examine what it means to be Filipino. The lack of a real "culture" has inspired a handful of writers to set out to tackle those big thorny issues like death, war, and the usual suspects that color Philippines’ history. Jessica Hagedorn and Han Ong, both Filipino-American writers, have come out recently with two books, Dream Jungle and The Disinherited respectively, that try to address these huge and unwieldy themes and subjects with gusto, ambition, and ultimately mixed results.
Jessica Hagedorn has already taken a stab at the great all-Filipino novel in Dogeaters, a thoroughly post-modern and hyper-kinetic look at Manila in the reign of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and uses multiple narratives to propel the story forward. Hagedorn again revisits these old subjects and techniques in her newest but more subdued book, Dream Jungle, by writing about the discovery of an unknown primitive tribe deep in the jungles of the Philippines. The book is populated by its discoverer, Zamora Lopez de Legazpi, a rich mestizo playboy, and a young girl turned prostitute, Rizalina, who hangs out at a movie set about Vietnam, and the many other characters.
There is no small part of cleverness in the book. Hagedorn bases the novel on actual events, the “discovery” and unraveling of the Tasaday hoax -- a fake Stone Age tribe that was discovered in the jungles of the Philippines -- and the filming of a movie that bears a great resemblance to Apocalypse Now, and the characters’ ties to significant people in Filipino history. It seems like a big deal that Zamora refers to himself as a conquistador and shares the same last name of a conquering Spaniard in Philippines’ dark colonial past. Rizalina, the little girl who works at his mansion, is named after Jose Rizal, who was considered the father of the nation and writer of the seminal and revolutionary tract, Noli Me Tangere. It’s telling that Zamora develops an unfatherly interest on Rizalina who subsequently runs away from home and prostitutes herself. She eventually hooks up with an American actor who is part of a movie about Vietnam that is being shot in the Filipino jungles.
The scale and ambition of the book is evident. Hagedorn is trying to portray different types of “conquest” and its many connotations from its actual meaning to the befouling of a little girl or even an entire nation. She opens the book with a contemporary account of Magellan’s arrival, and follows with the discovery of the Stone Age tribe, Rizalina’s disgrace, and the eventual arrival of the Americans bringing their movies and pop culture detritus. Unfortunately, the book is a mixed bag and an unsatisfying read despite its many promising scenes and the huge scale of Hagedorn’s ambitions. What hurt the book are Hagedorn’s clumsy prose style and the meandering and unfocused narrative. The prose is gabby and clichéd. I more than once winced at the ineffectual or tired way a word was used. Her characters are overripe and painted with a broad brush. Zamora is a caricature and appears to be made of cardboard rather than flesh and blood. He is an annoying character who is concerned mostly with navel-gazing and cheating on his wife, and the reader can’t get really close to him. The same problem plagues Hagedorn’s Rizalina. You ultimately don’t care when she runs away and sells her body at a bar. Her monologue in the beginning of the book comes off as whiny and irritating. Hagedorn’s scattershot approach to the story doesn’t help matters. It’s post-modern and fragmented of course, but it doesn’t add up to a convincing whole in the end -- we stay too long with some characters and then drop down on others with little transition or reason, which makes the book messy and unfocused. But there are times of great beauty when she describes the lush jungle of the Stone Age tribe at the beginning of the book. To read it is to truly experience the weirdness, the humidity, the fecund wonder of what is possible in the far reaches, the most remote sections of an untouched Philippines.
Han Ong’s book, The Disinherited, does not suffer from the same inflictions as Hagedorn’s book. It’s better written for one thing, but then again, it’s also dispiriting, cold, and has all the charm of a Thomas Hardy novel -- meaning none.
Ong’s latest novel is about Roger Caracera, a ne-er do well who comes back to the Philippines to attend the funeral of his sugar magnate father, Jesus Caracera. Roger is stunned to learn that he has been bequeathed a large sum of money, and gives into his liberal guilt and decides to give it away despite the strong disapproval of his family. Along the way, he coaches a tennis player, spars with his aunty, and befriends a young underage hustler named Blue Boy. The book also takes a Dickensian approach by looking at every strata of Filipino society: the rich elites to the very poor.
Ong’s book, like Hagedorn’s, also examines the inevitable and shopworn themes of Filipino identity, conquest, sexploitation of young Filipinos, and the grinding and persistent poverty, but most of all the book is a searing portrait of that old saying: “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Roger makes a mess of things when he starts giving away money. People get almost killed and one little boy’s already pathetic life is made much worse. The book is ruthless in its gaze and doesn’t shy from the most abject spectacles: Blue Boy’s sexually graphic and eye-popping performance in front of paying pedophiles to his ultimate and almost Hardian fate that leaves you hankering for a Teletubby video and a bottle of malt liquor because you’re so damn depressed at the end.
Han Ong’s book is better written than Hagedorn’s. Its tone is more measured and the narrative is considerably more focused. The dark and subtle power of the prose drives its point sharply home. Unfortunately, the character of Roger, like Zamora, inspires little empathy. It’s a cold portrait. You don’t feel like investing any emotional capital in the protagonist. In contrast, Blue Boy’s portrayal tugs at the heartstrings. He is a young kid who gets picked up by an enterprising drag queen pimp, paraded in front of mostly Western pederasts, and falls desperately in love with Roger. Who wouldn’t be moved? However, the circumstances of his fall and death seem too far-fetched and ring hollow. Also, due to the relentless pounding of Ong’s theme, there’s a strong didactic coloring to his prose that makes the book a little too preachy and hectoring. The strong taint of melodrama that mixes in with the high-minded preachiness makes the book feel hermetic, claustrophobic, and finally gives out a coldness that leaves you very dispirited at the end. It’s not a happy book nor is it meant to be, but Ong lays down the melodrama pretty thick. There are some very tight and moving scenes such as when Roger finally leaves Blue Boy for good, but the steady stream of almost Victorian misfortunes visited upon the characters is far too much to bear.
Dream Jungle by Jessica Hagedorn
The Disinherited by Han Ong
Farrar, Straus and Giroux