The Disinherited
Han Ong
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The Disinherited

Han Ong
384 pages
September 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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When Roger Caracera returns to the Philippines for his father's funeral, he gets more than he bargained for. Although never very close to the wealthy sugar magnate Jesus Caracera, Roger is chosen as the chief inheritor to the old patriarch's immense fortune, giving him a tidy sum of $500,000, perhaps in an effort for Roger to reestablish a connection with his birthplace.

Roger has had an uneasy relationship with his homeland. More American than Filipino, Roger has long since rejected much of his restrictive, conservative upbringing, preferring to adopt the freewheeling "western ways." He lives in New York City and teaches writing at Columbia University, and his return to Manila is viewed with suspicion and a certain chagrin by his older and cynical uncles and aunts.

For the Caracera family has been hiding a dark secret: apparently Roger's Uncle Eustacio Caracera was gay and had willed a sizeable sum to Pitik Sindit, a young, poor prostitute with whom he had fallen in love. Shamed by his brothers and sisters, Eustacio sequestered himself from his own immediate family, undertaking a willed ostracism, a careful quiet mutiny.

Annoyed that his family tried to derail Pitik's rightful inheritance and full of guilt over his family's feudal wealth, Roger decides to track Pitik down to give him his rightful bequest. While his relatives begin to view him as the "unearther, the burrower, and the fomenter of old and new troubles," Roger comes to believe that he wants to leave some kind of signature behind, his actions reflecting a bedrock of selflessness.

Roger's journey leads him into the midst of Manila's most horrible slums as he witnesses the city's barely underground gay sex trade. Pitik also goes by the name of Blueboy and works as exotic dancer. Employed by a vicious Filipino woman who also pimps him, he is constantly tempted by a self-confessed American pedophile. Roger, who considers himself a confirmed heterosexual, tries to go out of his way to save Pitik from this squalid life, but he finds himself forming a strange connection to this boy who is simultaneously seductive and nave, manipulative, and repellent.

Author Han Ong weaves an exotic tale of family intrigue set against the background of a country where the demarcation between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, has never been more finely drawn. Roger starts out with good intentions, determined to end the line of what he sees as a decrepit dynasty, but he is constantly confounded by the world around him.

Trying to set him straight, his Aunt Irene warns him, in her world "there are the servers and those whom are served." She possesses a ruthless, clear-eyed logic that aims to cut through the "liberal pretensions and foggy romanticism" of her nephew. This is reflected in Ong's own view of the Philippines, a world of elite tennis clubs serving as pockets of peace, members and patrons shielded from the cries of so much teeming poverty, "a country where money has a tactile presence; its power put plainly was supernatural."

The Disinherited is a big, sweeping saga, with characters speaking in paragraphs and thinking in essays, long diatribes, the style deliberately convoluted and elaborate. The prose is studied, exquisite and beautiful as Ong steadily weaves a web of the Philippines, showcasing its history, class warfare, politics and cultural clashes. There is no doubt that the book is epic in tone and in theme.

In Roger, Ong has created a subtle and complicated character caught up in the changing tides of his culture. He is a man whose values are undoubtedly anchored in the West, but he still feels the ineffable pull of his birthplace, the old world with all its chaos, corruption, poverty, and organized mayhem.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2005

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