We’re All Nobody in Sabina Murray’s novel The Human Zoo, a grim social commentary from the Philippines
The Human Zoo is the seventh book by author, screenwriter and PEN/Faulkner Award winner Sabina Murray. Prior to The Human Zoo, Murray published six books: Valiant Gentlemen (2017), Tales of the New World (2011), Forgery (2008), The Caprices (2007), A Carnivore’s Inquiry (2005) and Slow Burn (Ballantine, 1990). ). Murray is also a member of the fiction faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a member of the editorial board of the Amherst College-based literary magazine The Common.
The story begins with Christina “Ting” Klein, a nearly 50-year-old author and Fil Am journalist, who arrives in Manila with two goals: to escape a divorce from her husband in New York and to write a book about Chief Timicheg. of the Bontoc Igorot natives who were displayed in a human zoo in Coney Island, New York.
Ting arrives shortly after the election of President Gumboc who has implemented a violent drug policy, terrorizing the country with extrajudicial executions and the looming threat of martial law. Despite the dangerous political climate, Ting falls easily into his family’s well-to-do life in the mixed-race landowner class; she is driven on her usual route by the family’s chauffeur, Mannie, and served by the family’s maid, Beng, who tries to impersonate the “Downton Abbey” characters.
Between bouts of writer’s block, Ting collects tithes from sharecroppers living on his family’s land, shops, and tourist spots, attends parties with family, friends, and Manileño’s upper crust. Though her life seems inoculated against the horrors of the Gumboc regime (whose violent headlines night after night mostly feature the “faceless people” among the poor), Ting is ever aware that wealth attracts its own kinds of violence and sees that she and her circles might be closer to danger than she thought:
“It was easy to forget that the danger was real, not just news reports, not just calamitous events that happened as a force of nature, and for other people… This is how people were murdered: a motorcycle with a gunman sitting on its back moving alongside a broken down car.
The novel is well written and the language flows easily. Although the story begins slowly, as Ting’s questions build up, the novel accelerates into a high-adrenaline political thriller. Murray captures his protagonist’s character and perspective well, giving Ting a simple, clear journalistic voice, which adds to the tense tone. Where Murray shines is in giving the Philippines a distinct and tangible atmosphere. Right from the start with Ting’s initial arrival at the airport, the sense of place is tactile, even aggressive:
“When the sliding doors released me, it was through a wall of high heat and the faint flicker of fluorescent bulbs in a dark night shot through by headlights. Horns echoed all around as if it were a force of nature.
Equally interesting, if not more so, is where Murray chooses for Ting to exaggerate his journalistic observations. Ting tends to overstate whenever he observes social interactions, explains and assesses the relevance of each scene – noting whenever a gift is appropriately received, when a question is appropriately asked, when the presence of a person is appropriately welcomed (“…we had to see who of merit were present: a member of the cabinet, a judge and the minister of education…”). It gives the impression of an observer aware that she herself is constantly being observed. Does she, with her most intimate monologue, speak to the Pinoy herself, or the mixed-race white American – a question that adds a weight of inevitability to Ting’s fate at the end of the novel.
Every conflict presented in the book is a matter of ignorance and control: how far can we truly anticipate the actions that will shape our future? Does ignorance really protect us from the consequences? Privilege allows Ting’s family to live in the eye of a storm, seething in a false calm amid devastating danger. Ting and his peers engage in philosophical debates about social policy, often with heated opinions but undeniably remote from the reality that the working classes and poorer people cannot escape. Because of their influence, reach and connections, they view the Philippines as though through the window of a high-rise penthouse: owning the country while being above it all. Under the illusion of this distance, Ting spends his days digging through the library’s archives, ironically searching for passages that might unlock insight into Chief Timicheg’s mind – why he ever agreed to send his tribe to America. , to be held captive in the human zoo:
“Timicheg had not been a prelapsarian savage. He had already served as a mercenary for the Spanish and met several Americans. Although he couldn’t imagine the details of Coney Island, he was a man who had made a deal with a known enemy. He must have been suspicious, worried, but in the end he felt he was doing what was best for him and his tribe.
Didn’t he see that his decision doomed them all?
For readers who enjoy a slow burn of high-octane political historical fiction in the same vein as Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, or those looking for dark social commentary from the Philippines that reads like a contemporary version of Noli Me Tángere, The Human by José Rizal Zoo is an urgent vision that is all too real.