Lost, and 'Lost,' in the Philippines
'Dream Jungle' by Jessica Hagedorn

By Carolyn See,

Jessica Hagedorn presents here a panoramic picture of Filipino society from the dawn of time as we know it, through the conquest of the Spaniards, through the subsequent conquest of the Americans, to a third conquest, when Francis Ford Coppola stormed the country to make "Apocalypse Now," and then to another "Now," the amorphous "Present." It's a massive and complicated task.

Zamora de Lagazpi, at the center of this narrative, is the scion of a powerful family of the Filipino ruling class. He's mestizo, combining the voracious instincts of the Spanish conquistadors with the mysterious knowledge of indigenous peoples who've lived in the jungle for millennia. Lagazpi has more money than he knows what to do with and the morality of a tomcat with a bad hangover. There are literally no limits on what he chooses to do and not do. He has a beautiful German trophy wife and a couple of children, and has performed prodigious amounts of sex with almost everyone on the islands who can breathe. He's bored beyond belief. On a jaunt into the jungle, Lagazpi "discovers" a Paleolithic "lost tribe" of natives (and takes the cutest boy home with him). Anthropologists duly trek out to write their ethnologies, and President Marcos himself offers to kick in some government money to aid the project. Lagazpi's wife leaves him and takes the kids.

Who can say what really has happened? We learn only part of Lagazpi's story and even less of the larger narrative. What's going on in this troubled country?

Another way of looking at this complicated picture is through the eyes of Rizalina, a peasant girl who comes to work for Lagazpi as a lowly chambermaid. He goes after her immediately. She runs away and finds a job as a prostitute in the city. Rizalina is "tough" -- Lagazpi's opposite number. She has a mother and will have a child, but she cares little for either of them; she's wired only to survive.

Into this world -- I guess it may be seen as a sociopathic world, even though churches abound on every street -- comes Vincent Moody, a disaffected, disillusioned American actor, hired by the Big Director to work in the Big Movie that's about to start production. Moody thinks he's a wicked man because he's deserted his girlfriend in the States, plus he gets high on acid on the way over, but actually he's a child in the ways of vice. He meets the beautiful Rizalina and loses his heart. Up to now, he has dimly assumed he didn't have one.

I think -- if I read correctly -- that in "Dream Jungle" Hagedorn is trying to delineate the Filipino "character," a character that has never been imprinted by what we conventionally might think of as "morality" -- their Catholicism is too recent and too tainted by the greed of the Spanish conquerors. I think the author is trying to show a society where people do what they must, or what they want to do, whatever comes first, without any hint of regret or sorrow or illusion.

This plays in stark contrast to the pretensions and downright dopiness of the American director who barges into the Philippines as if everyone were interested in him and his film. His ignorance is portrayed as boundless, his self-absorption absolutely off the charts. In truth, the author seems to say, the only one who really cares what the director is doing is his long-suffering wife, who's dutifully making a movie about him making a movie.

Meanwhile, Lagazpi wines and dines the anthropologists. The old ladies of the "lost tribe" give everyone who comes around some very dirty looks. Big money changes hands. The cutest boy from the tribe makes himself thoroughly at home at Lagazpi's mansion. Somewhere, offstage, Marcos is going down. But will any of that make any difference to the people who live in this cluster of fascinating islands, people so rich, so poor, so imaginative, so marginalized?

Extreme wealth has its peculiarities. When Imelda Marcos was deposed by an American federal prosecutor, she invited that prosecutor to a table that had a fence built up around its borders, perhaps a foot tall. The table was filled with pearls. Imelda thrust her arm down into them and invited the prosecutor to do the same. Because the pearls felt so great! Starving children could fend for themselves. Hagedorn's challenge is to morph this kind of strange truth into plausible fiction; she does it very well.

Again, as in so many examples of colonization, who ends up conquering whom? Lagazpi is dealt a death blow by his own vices. The American director emerges "successful," but he has gone down in Filipino folklore as a moron. Rizalina comes out of all this with a pretty house on a Southern California beach.

Meanwhile, the Philippines go on, in all their complexity. Because of their geographic location, conquerors will forever lust after them. But it's possible that the islands' population will go on living "jungle dreams," visions the outside world can't begin to imagine. Hagedorn's style is oblique, but it utterly suits her subject.

2003 The Washington Post Company


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