In 1971 a wealthy Filipino, Manuel Elizalde, discovered a lost tribe in a jungle on Mindanao living in a manner apparently unchanged since the Paleolithic period. This group of hunters and gatherers, called the Tasaday, appeared to enjoy an altogether idyllic existence. It was reported, for example, in virtually every contemporary account of the group that they had no words for “war” or “enemy.” Unfortunately, the notion that the Tasaday were noble savages unsullied by the 20th century seems to fall under the heading: Wonderful, if True.
Though there are still those who argue that they were the “real thing,” the consensus now seems to be that the Tasaday were actually a desperately poor people whose contact with the 20th century, though limited by their poverty, was far from nonexistent. Elizalde had bribed and bullied the tribe into masquerading as the Stone Age anachronisms he wanted them to be.
The most negative interpretation placed upon Elizalde’s actions holds that he was in cahoots with Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and that what has come to be known as “the Tasaday hoax” was cooked up to give powerful plutocrats an excuse to limit access to the Tasaday habitat to ensure that they would be the first to get their hands on the area’s natural wealth.
It is far from clear, however, that it was greed alone — or at all — that motivated Elizalde. He might have been driven by a romantic attraction to the primitive, the same nostalgic longing that made so many eager to believe in the Tasaday’s pacifism and purity: It is impossible, at this remove, to say.
What is clear is that where motivation is this murky, journalists and historians must take a back-seat to the unfettered imagination of the novelist. And when the novelist is as talented as Jessica Hagedorn, who is not only perceptive but knowledgeable about the Philippines, then one is confident that her version of these events and the country will be illuminating. She does not disappoint.
As a Filipino, Hagedorn understands that the Philippines is not a simple place and that a simple narrative, therefore, would not be the best vehicle to convey the country to Western readers whose knowledge of the Philippine archipelago — assuming they have any at all — usually begins with Imelda’s Marcos’ shoes and ends with the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
Thus she weaves together an account of the Elizalde-like Zamora Lopez de Lezgapi with the story of Rizalina and her mother (both servants in Zamora’s house) as well as, later, with the antics of a Hollywood film crew who descend on Mindanao to make a movie about Vietnam. Hagedorn pulls this off thanks to her skill at writing in a number of voices that move effortlessly from first-person to third.
The first voice which arrests us is that of Rizalina: “Me, Rizalina. Born into a life of sh*t, but nevertheless voted best number one elementary student in all of Sultan Rammayyah. Champion speller, speed reader, and secret keeper. Okeydokey fluent in English, as you can tell by now.”
We follow this girl from a class of peasants barely a rung above the Taobo (the name Hagedorn uses for the Tasaday) as she moves with her mother to Zamora’s house, and we observe through her eyes the early days of Zamora’s fame as discoverer of the Taobo.
When Rizalina leaves Zamora’s house, we follow her as she finds herself working as a prostitute, and continue with her as she meets an unstable actor from the Vietnam movie. Eventually, through her relationship with the actor, she will end up in Santa Monica, California, but first she accompanies the actor to the set of the epic film.
It is in this section of the novel that we get some of Hagedorn’s finest writing — razor-sharp accounts of Hollywood pettiness and excess. Her acerbic portrait of the megalomaniacal director and his collaborators is one of the elements of the novel that saves it from slipping into the facile magical realism that is often used to portray the Third World’s cities and jungles.
As enjoyable as each of the discrete pieces of this novel is the fascinating way in which Hagedorn weaves together Rizalina’s bildungsroman, Zamora and the Taobo, the Hollywood chapters, and the other threads to form a coherent work. Each of the novel’s elements involves encounters between cultures, encounters that Hagedorn is too sophisticated to paint as one-sidedly negative or positive, and in which she is too clear-sighted to locate heroes or villains. What she gives us instead are survivors, and her skill as a novelist creates survivors that we want to know.