Europe first encountered the Philippines in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan claimed the archipelago for Spain—and ended up dead after a battle with local chieftain Lapu Lapu. Jessica Hagedorn's Dream Jungle
starts with an excerpt from a contemporary account of Magellan's Philippine visit, which describes comely native women clad in nothing but thin strips of bark "before their privies," suggesting that conquest can be inspired as much by lust as God and king.
The novel that follows is set in the Philippines under strongman Ferdinand Marcos—as was Dogeaters, Hagedorn's first novel—but the themes go back to Magellan: explorers turn out to be conquerors, Westerners are still bending Philippine destinies and lechery continues to bind colonizer and native.
At the center of the novel is Rizalina, a sweet and resilient servant girl, who comes to Manila to work as a servant for Zamora López de Legazpi, a rich man who claims to have discovered a group of Stone Age cave dwellers in the country's south. (Hagedorn's inspiration for this plot line is the real-life "discovery" of the Tasaday tribe in 1971, later denounced as a hoax.) Rizalina concludes that Zamora has become uncomfortably enamored with her, and she runs away to become a dancer in a seedy go-go bar. There she meets Vincent Moody, an American actor who has abandoned his family to work on the crew of Napalm Sunset
, a Vietnam War movie being filmed in the Philippines (inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now
.) Like Zamora, Moody has a deep, conquistador carnality, a trait shared by almost all of the men in Dream Jungle
, but Rizalina emerges from their affair happy though a little bit wary.
Dream Jungle lacks the intimate, gossipy feel of Dogeaters, and its two story lines never manage to cohere. Although Hagedorn is clearly engaged with the effect of Spanish and American colonialism on her homeland, the reader wonders about her motive in basing the book on these two historical episodes. In the Philippines, the Tasaday saga is largely remembered for the international publicity—and later embarrassment—it wrought. Apocalypse Now was the next watershed of attention from abroad. Perhaps Hagedorn believes that foreign readers—she left the Philippines in 1962 and now lives in New York—need such recognizable signposts to navigate a work of Philippine fiction.
Or does the Philippines only exist when it is noticed—or preyed upon—by the outside world?