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Invented Eden: A Book Review

Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday
by Robin Hemley
Farrar Strauss and Giroux

Not since the Piltdown Man hoax in England have so many solid reputations been destroyed by a scientific issue as the Tasaday controversy in the Philippines. Invented Eden is an effective antidote for those who believe the gentle people discovered in a South Cotabato backwater in 1971 were a Stone Age tribe isolated from mainstream humanity for millennia. It is also an effective antidote to those who want to believe that the whole sorry affair was simply a confidence trick.

Hemley, an English professor at the University of Utah, is better known as a fiction writer, which may be why so much of Invented Eden reads like a particularly complex detective story, one that takes the reader on a twisting journey in which each firm foothold seems to crumble to dust the moment it is touched. He captures the flavour of the Philippines and its cultures with exactitude, a country and people of enormous extremes in which a multitude of greys stand bodyguard to every truth.

Writing with passion and fondness, Hemley begins with the initial reports of the discovery of the Tasaday in 1971. They attracted the attention of Manda Elizalde, a complex, wealthy Forbes Park brat with a bad attitude, a squad of goons, and possibly a touch of insanity, who ran PANAMIN, at first a private foundation and later an agency under the Marcos government charged with helping the country's tribal minorities. It also caught the attention of John Nance, an Associated Press photographer whose experiences amid the horrors of Vietnam led him to a desk job at AP's Manila office.

For Nance, the Tasaday were the antithesis of the hatred of Vietnam, it became an article of faith, a hope for mankind. It would also become the cross upon which his integrity and honesty would be crucified. As for Manda Elizalde, his agenda was, and remains, far from clear.

The Tasaday seemed to be too good to be true. Sure enough, claims that the whole thing was a hoax quickly surfaced, followed again by a media feeding frenzy that largely ignored the agendas of the hoax proponents. For many of them, the Tasaday were not an undiscovered Eden but a symbol of the corrupt and murderous Marcos regime. For others, the presence of a real Tasaday tribe blocked their ambitions to log out the Tasaday reserve, so the Tasaday must be a hoax.

Hemley digs through the mass of documents, reports, interviews and artifacts like an enthusiastic terrier seeking out an elusive ferret. The ferret in this case being the truth about the Tasaday. He also explores the language we use to describe ourselves and others and how that language is coloured by preconceptions and agendas and the desire on one hand to believe that truth is a fixed value and on the other that truth is a variable as liquid as mercury.

Hemley sets off to meet the Tasaday himself and gathers evidence that they are, indeed, suspect, but the pendulum begins to swing the other way on a return visit years later, as the truth again plays hide-and-seek.

The Tasaday became a mirror, a mirage, and a metaphor that demand a more than casual examination of their complex truths and the false Eden they inhabited. So does Hemley's Invented Eden.


About Bob Couttie

Bob Couttie is a British writer and director based in Subic Bay Freeport, where he serves as the Film Commissioner for the Subic Bay Freeport Chamber of Commerce. He co-founded the first Filipino community newspaper in the UK, The Filipino (Now the Filipino Express) and the Balangiga Research Group. Bob also wrote the entry on the Philippine American War for the latest edition of Scribner's Dictionary of American History. Comments may be sent to bob@bobcouttie.com.

Source: Review by Bob Couttie, Submitted through e-mail


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