By Han Ong
Farrar Straus Giroux. 369 pp. $25
How is it possible to improve or change an absolutely corrupt society without becoming part of that society and thus becoming absolutely corrupt oneself?
Han Ong, who spent the first 16 years of his life in the Philippines before coming to the United States, tackles this vexing puzzle. The author burns with rage, love and exasperation at his home country, and uses this baroque, complex novel to express some of those emotions.
To tell this story, to capture the whole, fractious impossibility of the mess that he perceives to be the Philippines, the author creates a flawed hero who has tried with all his might to escape the clutches of his nation's ghastly, unjust past. Roger Caracera, youngest son of a decaying but still very wealthy family in the islands, has grown up disgusted with the squalor, ignorance and crime that exist outside his family's ostentatious home, and in fact the whole system that keeps the Philippines the way it is. While he recognizes that being successively conquered by Spain, Japan and the United States has kept his countrymen defeated morally as well as physically, he deplores the graft, bribery and kickbacks that keep a few families "safe" within the ruling class, leaving the rest of the islands in a state of perpetual rot.
When Roger is 20, he defies his father, denounces his family and their tainted money, and comes to live in New York. There he tries to write, and has so much sex that by age 44 he's burnt out, and has become something of a monk.
Then his father dies, and he's summoned home. This is where and when the novel begins, in a grotesque funeral procession under a scorching sun, as obscenely rich friends and family parade before hordes of the excluded poor, who seethe with rage, envy and hate. The family, we see early on, is like some horrid giant worm out of a bad science fiction movie. It will do anything to protect itself, feed itself, keep itself alive. Roger's mother, who scorned the family's sloth and vice, languishes now in an asylum. A gay uncle, who died either of AIDS or a convenient murder, lies buried in a pauper's grave. The Caraceras, who have made their money from generations of oppressing peasants on a sugar plantation, will commit any crime to protect their money and precarious status in the society. Roger hates them all -- as he hated his womanizing, spoiled and greedy father.
Imagine his surprise, then, at the reading of the will, to find that while his brother and sister have been left a quarter of a million each, he, the prodigal son, has been left a half-million dollars.
Half a million -- a devilish sum, actually. Of course, Roger wants to give it away (to his family's consternation, to put it mildly). Of course he wants to improve the condition of his people, but it would take a billion-billion dollars, plus an act of God, to change anything about his homeland. In fact, besides the conquests mentioned above, the Philippines has acted as a fantasy playground for two sets of people -- crazed Spanish Catholic missionaries who have condemned every function of the flesh as sinful, and crazed foreign men who have come to these islands to slake their disgraceful lust, to do what they wouldn't dare do at home. So, religiously speaking, this is a vale of tears, and sexually speaking, if you're raped, why not relax and enjoy it? Simply by trying to help, Roger becomes part of the Rubik's Cube of insane injustice.
The rest of the novel is an episodic Cook's tour of Filipino hell. Roger gives some money to a drunken priest who runs a school for wayward boys. He gives some to a missionary lady who will at least spend it on medicines for the poor. Really, there's no place to spend -- or give -- his tainted inheritance. He endures endless family parties as his relatives scheme to get his money.
He settles finally on trying to help two teenage boys in very different circumstances: one, an urchin who has taught himself the game of tennis and acts as partner to bored matrons at the country club; and another, a boy named Pitik Sindit, who was the lover of Roger's dead uncle. Pitik works as a whore, but he sees his life as a beautiful, important romance. When Roger gets hold of Pitik and tries to improve his monumentally awful life, tragedy and heartbreak are inevitable. And Roger himself plays the odious twin roles of missionary and despoiler.
Meanwhile, millions of Filipinos continue to suffer, to be raped, pillaged and plundered. When will we acknowledge what we have done, Han Ong asks. Even if it's impossible, now, to fix.