By Jessica Hagedorn
251 pages, $19.95
TO ANYONE REMOTELY familiar with the turbulent history of the Philippine Islands in the postwar era, an eventual outpouring of literature about the Philippine experience during that period seemed almost inevitable.
But in Jessica Hagedorn's "Dogeaters," we have not only a major novel about coming of age in the Philippines under Marcos, but a tightly woven vision of Philippine society. It samples life in the presidential palace, among the aristocratic families and takes in the travails of the working classes and life among the prostitutes, thugs and junkies who make their living on Manila's streets.
The novel's title -- a mildly pejorative slang term used to refer to native Filipinos -- is emblematic of one of the persistent themes of the book: the difficulty of establishing a sense of national identity and personal worth in a culture that is clearly dominated by and subservient to American appetites.
Though the novel has no protagonist in traditional sense, much of the narrative is framed through the intelligence of a young woman named Rio Gonzaga, the strong-willed daughter of a well-to-do family who eventually decides -- to leave the Philippines for the broader horizons of the United States.
While the experience and perceptions attributable directly to Hagedorn's own surrogate Rio seem focused on the Philippines of the 1960s, much of the rest of the novel seems set in the police state environment of Manila in the 1970s and early 1980s (elected to the presidency in 1965 and 1969, Ferdinand Marcos suspended the Philippine constitution and declared martial law in 1972). Clearly, however, this is no mere roman a clef.
We encounter a broad range of narrative voices who exemplify the ambitions and illusions of the Philippine working class; the Philippines' most visible and articulate opposition leader; and Joey Sands, a teen-age junkie and male prostitute who stands out as a kind of terse essay on the varieties of human exploitation.
For a novel of relatively modest length, "Dogeaters" presents an extraordinary rich and exhilarating portrait of life in a country and culture that is -- at least in the United States -- not particularly well understood or appreciated.
"Dogeaters" is much more than a fictionalized memoir. It is a novel of genuine accomplishment and consequence.