What two things does a scandal involving the fraudulent discovery of a Stone Age tribe and the filming of an extravagant, controversial motion picture about the Vietnam War
have in common? One: both events transpired in the Philippines during the 1970s, the pinnacle decade of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Secondly, they form the backdrop of Jessica Hagedorn’s latest novel “Dream Jungle,” a book that echoes a period of turbulence in the Philippines, a turbulence that continues to this day.
Hagedorn’s most central character in “Dream Jungle” is Zamora de Legazpi, a wealthy Filipino Spanish mestizo who claims to find a prehistoric, cave-dwelling tribe of hunter-gatherers called the “Taobo” in the Philippine rainforest, circa 1970, supposedly never seen before by outsiders. At first, Legazpi’s discovery is commended by the scholarly community as a major historical find. But by the end of “Dream Jungle,” the discovery is exposed as a fraud, as an elaborate hoax fabricated by Legazpi himself.
Hagedorn’s story is based on the real-life deception that was the Tasaday tribe in Mindanao, the discovery of which was purportedly stage-managed in 1971 by Manuel Elizalde Jr., the then-Philippine Minister of Culture. It has since been proven, with some detractors in between, that the Tasaday at the time of their “discovery” in 1971 were neither cave-dwellers, nor of the Stone Age, nor untouched by the external world. It had all been a captivating, but manufactured anthropological drama, guilefully exploited by Elizalde to promote tourism in the islands.
The personification of Elizalde the man is fictionalized by Hagedorn in the character of Zamora de Legazpi. Like Elizalde at the height of the Tasaday saga, Zamora de Legazpi is a domineering, moneyed Spanish Filipino bon vivant cultivating his lofty political connections and flaunting his “mestizo sense of entitlement” as Hagedorn writes. He is an overbearing figure to his subjects, relentless in his pursuits, exceptionally intelligent, a “Conquistador of conquistadors” so arrogant that he conducted the Tasaday scam just “because he could,” according to one of “Dream Jungle’s” characters, Professor Amado Cabrera. The professor goes on to label Legazpi as thus: “So inventive, outrageous, playful, and inherently Filipino.” Legazpi may have been Spanish on the outside, but he was more Filipino than he realized or would care to acknowledge on the inside.
Legazpi-fashioned after the historical Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the conqueror of Luzon and the founder of the city of Manila-is immediately established by Hagedorn as a pillar of “Dream Jungle’s” narrative, the immutable force that would initially appear to be the novel’s unchallenged terminus of power and supremacy. However, as you proceed through the book, you find that the contemptuous personage of Legazpi is a gradually weakening foundation on which several of “Dream Jungle’s” other characters are intertwined into in one way or another. Through all of Legazpi’s hubris, these particular characters establish unique, stimulating identities on their own, free of the conquistador’s dominion.
It is evident that “Dream Jungle” is in keeping with Hagedorn’s wonderful sense of diversity and uncanny apprehension of human psychology. Indeed, the novel exhibits her affinity for casting in her stories an intriguing range of individuals, individuals possessing different experiences, personalities, and backgrounds. She introduces us to characters afflicted with convoluted and in some cases, wounded psyches. She also describes people in the midst of navigating the bewildering cross-currents of intersecting cultures, usually the Filipino and American cultures. Last but not least, Hagedorn brings us face to face with characters who manifest disparate responses, from pleasure to anger, from vanity to humility, from concern to confusion, to the corrupt and unstable world around them.
Hagedorn’s psychological handicraft is all over the character of Rizalina, a ten-year old girl who is employed by Legazpi in his household after her sadistic father and her twin brothers are drowned in a ferry accident. She slowly learns her way around her master’s estate as a servant. Rizalina is bright, curious, and attractive, and Legazpi becomes enamored in the young lady during her maturation process, his hauteur being somewhat tempered by her presence under his roof. Later, Rizalina escapes from Legazpi’s hold only to descend into the quagmire of prostitution.
Rizalina is rescued from her dire straits by Vincent Moody, a disgruntled American actor who falls in love with her. Moody has come to the Philippines to film “Napalm Sunset,” a Vietnam War screen epic directed by the megalomaniac Tony Pierce, a rough facsimile of the renowned film director, Francis Ford Coppola. It was Coppola’s 1977 movie “Apocalypse Now” which inspired Hagedorn’s “Napalm Sunset.” The fictional movie can be said to be a symbol of American cultural influence on the Filipino town it is filmed in, causing one native resident to complain that it was making life “seem less slow, petty, and provincial.”
There are several other remarkable characters in “Dream Jungle,” all worth mentioning. But the book’s captivating quality also arises from Hagedorn’s marvelously lush and colorful narration, by now a tried and true style that has become second nature to this talented author. With the lucidity and richness of her narrative, Hagedorn not only conceives memorable characters and a creatively disjointed story line. She also interrogates the U.S.-Philippine relationship in a nuanced and personal way as she revisits again and again the historical encounter between the cultures.
“Dream Jungle” is a variation on a theme, a theme of Hagedorn’s that defamiliarizes the effects of a bilateral cultural relationship and conveys its impact and influence on the individual souls existing within that context. Hagedorn furthermore, in observing the best and worst of the collective Filipino experience in her works, succeeds in pushing the envelope a long way towards an authentic remapping of the contours and direction of Philippine culture and history.