The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray

Written with compelling self-assurance The Human Zoo focuses on Ting, a Filipino-American journalist in her late forties whose marriage is close to collapse. Ting decides to go to Manila, where she seeks refuge in her Tita Rosa’s house, who still dotes on her like she was a child. Ting’s motivations for this journey are ambiguous, even to herself, but being in Manila does allow her to put some distance between her and her predicament (impending divorce) and to carry out the much-needed research she needs to complete her book (which she should already be writing) on Timicheg, an Igorot man who in the early 20th century was displayed in one of the last ‘human zoos’ in America. As Ting listlessly carries out her days, eating with her Tita Rosa, attending bombastic family gatherings, and reconnecting with her socialist friend, Inchoy, a teacher, and perhaps rekindling her romance with her former sweetheart, Chet, now a married magnate dabbling is some dubious business deals.
Since her last visit Procopio Gumboc, a fictional stand-in for Rodrigo Duterte, has become the country’s controversial president who incentivizes his anti-drug campaign by offering bounties, leading to a mounting numbers of extrajudicial killings.
Although aware of Gumboc’s activities, Ting easily slips back into a comfortable existence with the house staff taking care of her every need. The only things weighing on her mind are her slow progress on her research and her writing, as well as the endless traffic of Manila. When her aunt asks her to look after Laird, the American fiance of one of her cousin’s, Ting is not too pleased, especially when his line of questioning reveals a fierce interest in the city’s infrastructure, in Gumboc, and in martial law.

Mired by ennui, Ting rarely makes any active choice, often letting others make choices on her behalf, yet, as we know, sometimes not choosing is a choice in itself, one that allows Ting to see herself as free of responsibility and culpability. Ting ignores her husbands’ attempts to reach out to her, avoids her Tita’s questions, and reluctantly finds herself with Chet, despite her desire to be alone, certainly not a ‘mistress’, and her aversion to Chet’s ways (he refuses to discuss his work with her, dismiss her concerns over their relationship at ever turn, often making her feel as if she is making a big deal out of something simple).
Ting finds herself confronted with reality when Laird vanishes and someone dear to her is brutally murdered as a result of Gumboc’s war on drugs.

This is yet another instance that makes me realize that sometimes I read the right book at the wrong time. Having recently had a blast with Sabina Murray’s A Carnivore’s Inquiry, a darkly satirical novel in the vein of Ottessa Moshfegh, I decided to revisit The Human Zoo, which I read last summer, in the hopes that, having familiarized myself with Murray’s tone and style, this time around I would be able to appreciate it more. While the narrator is not quite as sharp or subversive as the central character in A Carnivore’s Inquiry, I did find myself drawn by Ting, even if her perspective is often informed by a naive understanding of the world around her. Despite the limitations brought about by adopting Ting’s point of view, Murray is nevertheless able to present us with a clever social commentary exploring class, identity, gender, and politics in contemporary Philippines as well as providing us readers with an uneasy retrospective on colonialism, ‘human zoos’, and past regimes. Through Ting’s perspective and the research she carries out, Murray is also able to give us a comprehensive overview of the geography of the Philippines and of its predominant ethnic groups and languages so that the Philippines that ultimately emerges in these pages is multivalent and idiosyncratic. Like A Carnivore’s Inquiry, The Human Zoo has a predilection for periods of history and artworks that are fraught with violence, often honing in on practices like cannibalism. While A Carnivore’s Inquiry gives us a glimpse into the American elite, The Human Zoo centers on Manila’s upper class. Ting’s obliviousness to her privilege soon becomes apparent, yet she repeatedly takes the higher moral ground with others. When discussing Gomboc, his infringement of human rights, she does so from afar, cushioned as she is by her family’s wealth, her ‘American mestizo’ identity. Her involvement with Chet, despite the suspicion of his being involved with Gomboc, also reveals that despite her resolute anti-Gomboc stance, she can compromise her morals (that she remains with chet after the death of her friend…).
I found the story truly immersive and atmospheric. Ting is a flawed yet compelling narrator whose insights into the Philippines social and political climate, although shaped by her privileged standpoint, are always discerning. Although more subdued than in A Carnivore’s Inquiry, there are remarks and scenes that are tinged with irony which always succeed in adding levity. Like A Carnivore’s Inquiry, The Human Zoo is permeated by ambivalence, as Murray refuses the easy way out, so we never know quite where to stand with certain characters, nor are we certain if and when Ting’s stay in Manila will end.
The ending did feel rushed, which is a pity as before that the pacing was very much consistent. I still find myself wondering why Ting, who is very Americanized, describes Inchoy, her friend, as being gay when he is in a loving relationship with a transwoman, then again, maybe I am viewing this relationship through Western tinted lenses.

The Human Zoo paints a vivid picture of contemporary Manila, from its trafficked roads and humid weather, to its class disparities and political climate. Through Ting’s narrative Murray explores past and present systems of power, the horrors of colonialism, privilege, and identity.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
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