Dream Jungle

TITLE: “Dream Jungle”

AUTHOR: Jessica Hagedorn

PUBLISHER: Penguin Books

REVIEW PUBLISHED IN: The New York Times, Oct. 5, 2003 by Michael Harris

A narrative collage hopscotching from year to year, from place to place and from one point of view to another: that’s what Jessica Hagedorn offers in her intricate new novel, which boldly links a Manila millionaire’s ”discovery” of a Stone Age tribe on Mindanao with a filmed re-creation of the Vietnam War on that same guerrilla-plagued island six years later.

”Dream Jungle” scrupulously documents its chosen time and place: the Marcos-controlled Philippines of the 1970’s. But it also, more ambitiously, engages with the unreliability of the realities it depicts.

Could this whole Stone Age tribe business (based on the controversy surrounding the ”gentle” Tasaday) be a fraud? Will the fake war (based on Francis Ford Coppola’s filming of ”Apocalypse Now” in the Philippines) make contact with the real hostilities nearby? Can ”Napalm Sunset” — Hagedorn’s perfect title for the film — do justice to the agonizing war that inspired it? What interference (or protection) can the filmmakers and anthropologists expect from the Philippine military and the Marcos government?

The book repeatedly zeroes in on the societal repercussions of heavily stage-managed creations, whether they be films, unlikely anthropological discoveries or the public face presented by a repressive regime to its citizens. But Hagedorn, thankfully, puts none of this down too baldly on the page. Instead, she intuits and insinuates her way around a dozen memorable characters and milieus, letting her concerns swarm beneath the busy surface of her narrative.

The result is her best book since ”Dogeaters,” and a fine recovery from her flawed second novel, ”The Gangster of Love.” Indeed, ”Dogeaters” and ”Dream Jungle” stand together like installments in a single panoramic Philippine historical epic, with just the right amount of cheesy delight in pop culture and tacky behavior to keep things from getting too pompous or ponderous.

”Dream Jungle” doesn’t exactly have a plot, but it does have numerous plot points that allow the yearnings and fates of its pivotal characters to intertwine. Chief among these characters is Zamora Lopez de Legazpi, son of one of the five richest men in the Philippines, husband to an indolent ”Teutonic goddess of a wife,” who pines for her native Munich, and father to two lackluster children, ages 10 years and 5 months. Until he’s introduced to the Taobo in the wilds of Mindanao, Zamora’s main interest is in seducing the household help and the occasional film actress. But becoming the ”Spirit Father” to a group of cave dwellers threatened by ”bandits, insurgent guerrillas” and ”goon squads hired by greedy logging companies” gives him a newfound purpose in life — nicely summed up in a Manila tabloid headline: ”Ex-Playboy Saves Our Cave men!”

A second key player is Rizalina Cayabyab, the beautiful 10-year-old daughter of Zamora’s cook. Sole survivor of a ferry disaster in which her father and brothers drowned, she becomes a servant in Zamora’s mansion, where the master of the house is quick to note the headstrong curiosity and intelligence of ”dear little blunt Rizalina.” She seems just feisty enough to hold her own against him.

Seemingly unconnected to these two — at least at first — is an American actor named Vincent Moody, a former child star who, at 26, finds his career languishing. Hired for a supporting role in the Vietnam War movie (”Risky,” his agent says, ”but the buzz is unbelievable”), Moody prepares for his part by ditching his girlfriend and child in Santa Monica, flying to Manila and hanging out in a go-go bar called the Love Connection (nicely described as ”a sad party waiting to happen”). Moody — ”wan as a ghost, kind and strangely sweet, even when he was high or drunk” — has been cast as ”a lovable kook who rides off into the napalm sunset.”

Anchoring the novel’s latter half and linking its various elements is Paz Marlowe, a Philippine-American journalist freelancing for a magazine called Groove Rocket (read: Rolling Stone). Paz is back in Manila to persuade Zamora, who happens to be a family friend, to talk to her about the much-disputed Taobo, suspected by some skeptics of being hired actors. When Paz can’t get the story she wants out of Zamora, she heads for Mindanao, where production of ”Napalm Sunset” is in full swing.

Other principals include a Coppola-like movie director, Tony Pierce; his wife, Janet, a filmmaker documenting the production of ”Napalm Sunset”; and a local powermonger, Mayor Fritz, a Marcos nephew whose dinners — unctuous, intimidating affairs — are feared and shunned by the film’s cast and crew. Trust Hagedorn to make Fritz her Polonius, a corrupt voice speaking unwelcome truths: ”Until our people learn to take the reins and lead themselves out of this cycle of dependency, mediocrity and despair, then we are truly lost.” The circumstances in which he makes this little speech are particularly sinister.


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