Dogeaters is a 1990 novel written by Jessica hagedorn. The novel traces the journey of multiple characters in Philippines in the 1960s. The writer draws inspiration from real life political events and personalities and weaves a compelling story around it. The book is a reflection of the Filipino society, the people and their lives, beliefs and mannerisms.
First things first, the name of the book was pretty shocking to me – ‘Dogeaters’. The title is a crude reference to a section of the Filipino society who eat Dogs. At a few places in the book references are made to the custom of eating of dogs by some natives (read the poor classes) in a derogatory manner. When you finish reading the book you realize that this is probably the most apt title to the book, since it brings out the highly fragmented and economically imbalanced Filipino society in the 1960s.
There are 3 major narratives in the novel:
Rio Gonzaga and her family and friends – Rio takes us through the various events in her life from the age of 10 till she is
an adult and has moved to America with her mother. She belongs to a well to do family in Manila and is least affected by what happens in the country since her parents are on the good books of the ruling political party and Severo Alacran, the richest man in Philippines. Like Rio says ‘I never worry about my father. He has connections and believes in paying bribes’.
They consider themselves ‘Guests’ in Philippines and hence consider themselves above the Filipinos. Rio watches American movies with her cousins, her mother wears the latest American designs and they throw big bashes for the who’s who in Philippines. Their lifestyle is very western and her mother eventually does move out to America. Rio’s only connect to Philippines is through her Grandmother, Lola Narcissa, who eats kamayan with her hands and listens to the radio serial ‘Love letters’ along with the servants. The one thing Rio loves too! Probably that is the reason Rio keeps visiting her home in Philippines even after moving to America.
Severo Alacran, Senator Avila, President and the First Lady – Severo Alacran is the richest man in Philippines and controls the economy of Philippines. He is married to a former beauty queen and has a daughter Baby Alacran who is quite a disappointment to her parents since she is neither talented nor beautiful. She gets pregnant at 17 and runs away with Pepe Carreon who works in the army and finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage [There is enough reason to believe that Pepe married her because of her surname]. Severo Alacran himself is a womaniser and his wife too cheats on him, they however stay married to keep up appearances. Severo Alacran again is unaffected by his surroundings, he is only mentioned with respect to his money and the connections that people try and take out with him to flaunt their power or status.
Senator Avila is the Leftist politician who is shown fighting against the politics of money. He is later assassinated in the movie which leads to quite a few lives destroyed including his family who find refuge in the forest and are trying to find out who killed hm. We however are not told till the last who kills him. Although it is easy to guess that that the president or Severo Alacran could be involved in it. His character seems inspired by Benigno Aquino Jr.
The president and the First lady – We never come to know the names of these 2 characters though they are the most powerful people in the book. The characters however are pretty much inspired by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos who ruled the Philippines in the late 60s.
Like Imelda Marcos secured the Miss Universe pageant in Manila in 1974, the book refers to an International Film festival being held in Manila. The Cultural centre the First lady builds is similar to the Folks Art Theatre and various other centres that Imelda built. During an interview in the book, the first lady refers to her shoes a la Imelda who was known for owning more a 1000 pair of shoes. The lavish expenditures become an eye sore for the reader as in the third narrative we are made aware of the acute poverty prevalent in the country at that point in time.
Joey Sands –Joey represents the poor, crime ridden underbelly of Philippines. Born of a whore, he is adopted by ‘Uncle’, a small time criminal who adopts orphans and teaches them petty crimes. Through Joey we come to know of the abject poverty, most of them people of the country live in. The book talks about a bounty to pay residents $5 for every 1000 flies they capture ‘If we cannot do away with this garbage, I think it is better to eliminate these creatures that bring sickness’.
Joey’s life turns topsy-turvy as he witnesses the assassination of Senator Avila and is sure that he will be convicted of the crime by the government.
The book inspired me to read up on the political scenario in the Philippines and I was surprised by the similarities that the book had to real life incidents. I think the book captures Philippines very well, it’s like a window to the Filipino world- their people, food, language [The book has quite few words in Tagalog] and the society at large. Why only Philippines, I was able to draw quite few parallels with our country as well and hence some of the incidents did not really shock me much. Like the love for anything American, in fact the sole aspiration of quite a few people in India too is to settle in America. Or the vast disparities in income, in a country where a Marine Drive and Dharavi exist in the same city separated only by a few rupees more or less, Joey’s story seemed very real. Senator Avila could easily be a Kanu Sanyal or a Charu Majumdar, who spearheaded the naxal movement. The atrocities meted put by General Ledesma reeks of so many police and military atrocities which are India’s reality too. And of course the film festival that the first lady organises so reminded me of the Commonwealth Games and the scam that followed.
The book could seem a little difficult at first with the narratives jumping from one to another and the various characters that are introduced one after the other. I had difficulty remembering who’s who? However half way through the book once you know all the characters and the shift from one narrative to anther is not so frequent it becomes easier. While I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I felt the book could have had a better ending. The writer did not bring any character to a conclusion apart from Rio to a certain extent.
The best part of the Book? Well the last chapter called ‘Kundiman’ it’s a rip off of the Lord’s Prayer which basically sums up the book – Napakabuti!! [Hope I got my Tagalog right]