Dream Jungle

    "Dream Jungle"

    by Jessica Hagedorn

    Penguin Books

    325 pages



      The Delusion and Consequence of Forgetting

      review by Nizhen Hsieh


Mayor Fritz turned to Lina. "Until our people learn to take the reins and lead themselves out of the cycle of dependency, mediocrity, and despair, then we are truly lost. What about you, Lina? Are you lost? What exactly do you think we should do?"

"Let me go," she said.

"What's stopping you? You've always been free to go," Mayor Fritz said.


-- an excerpt



In her latest novel, Hagedorn writes as an agent provocateur, making the characters complicit in the unraveling plot. In the process, her manipulation succeeds in also incriminating us, the readers. Discovery and conquest, what would naturally be perceived as the beginnings of a journey, only cause the effacement of history and the entrance into something monumentally ambiguous, a "dream jungle". This is the underlying war that Hagedorn refers to—bloodshed and loss that go beyond mere human death.


Against the faded backdrop of the Vietnam War, two events occur at the same time in the Philippines. One is the discovery of a lost ancient tribe and the other, is the filming of an epic war movie in a remote and forgettable region of the country. What brings the two together is the question of authenticity or fabrication, which also becomes the pervading conflict that in turn brings the five central characters of this story together. Zamora is a rich iconoclast playboy whose discovery of the lost tribe, estranges him from the rituals of his class. Rizalina is his young servant who runs away from his mansion and loses herself in the secretive world of sex tourism. She becomes intimately involved with the war movie actor, Vincent, who tries to escape his personal struggles by idealising Rizalina and her country. Paz is a journalist who returns to the Philippines when her mother falls ill to discover the answers behind Zamora's find and the filming of an epic. Mayor Fritz, the illegitimate nephew of the president, tries to conquer his battle with his personal history in witnessing and aiding the creation of the film.


What is compelling about this story is the portrayal of Post-colonialism not solely as an academic epithet but a heartfelt reality of contradiction and hypocrisy. There are no defined heroes or villains. Illegitimacy is made legitimate in a subversion of the enforced limitations of language. No one is left behind. Every character in the story has a fleshed out and intricate history, each one an abandoned child in search of resolve, as lost as the members of the Taobo tribe. Their collective silence resonates like a screech, watching each other with accusing eyes. The character of Tony Pierce, an American director, smugly quotes Conrad from the \italic{Heart of Darkness}, "We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories." Yet, ironically, the Vietnam War movie he creates is filmed in the Himal forest of the Philippines. The local villagers are exploited as props and an elaborate set is constructed, only to be destroyed over and over again by simulated bombs and bullets. The capricious wrath of tropical storms strives to erase the theatre of excess and martial authority, reclaiming what rightfully belongs to the law of the jungle.


Moreover, Hagedorn disrupts the notion of identity by carefully orchestrating history, geography and culture into a surreal mess by weaving in and out of time and space. She breaks the structure, rendering the plot a dream sequence in itself and leaves everyone (both characters and readers) questioning and flailing in a "black hole" where the ending is expected to be. As Debord once said "...society is based on the spectacle in the most fundamental way." The spectacle, in this story, created by a vivid cinematic narrative emphasises the appearance over truth and exposes the negation of life through the invention of its own visual form. Like a mantra, Pierce mutters, "The earth is unearthly." The filming of his movie and the photographic documenting of the lost tribe manifest loss under the theatrical guise of death and abandonment but in reality, it perpetuates forgetfulness and presents to us a cosmetically enhanced history. The country's beauty becomes objectified, naked in teddies dancing provocatively or naked in loincloths posing innocently for us to indulge in but there is an emotional cost to this economic viability. The rehearsals and dramatic conflicts amid the cast and crew on the movie set become a distraction and escape for the villagers from the political oppression. Life on the surface is romanticised and the superficial is made into an ideal, glitzy and polished as the towering buildings of Manila, fat and juicy as the steaks and chickens that are imported from America for the Hollywood crew's prodigious appetite. The tribe is construed as a hoax and the obsession with their authenticity and purity represents peoples' desire for temporary passions.


Love and hate go no further so that anything could belong to anyone. What evolves is a present absence that stretches from past to future, making memory carefully selective. In the end, each character somehow disappears or dies seemingly without reason. Those that are left behind, refuse the act of self- recognition and life continues its self-destructive monotony of mindless indulgence. Just as abruptly as one wakes up from a dream, forgetting evolves into a way of maintaining the silence of what is un-nameable and un-speakable.