BOOK REVIEW / Something rotten: Ghosts of Manila - James Hamilton-Paterson: Cape, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS new novel's English hero, John Prideaux, has escaped a broken marriage and a disappointing career in television to play out his midlife crisis against the backdrop of the Filipino capital, a society in the advanced stages of putrefaction. His ostensible purpose is anthropological: he intends to write a thesis on the concept of amok. What is it that can push men over the brink into an orgy of indiscriminate killing? In what sense is the phenomenon culturally conditioned?

In Manila, what is surprising is not the frequency of amok but the fact that more people aren't driven to it. Life is cheap where 'policemen rampage like delinquents' and law enforcement is so surreal that it can only be compared to 'the Khmer Rouge in Disneyland'. Corpses litter the pages of the novel:

in the workshop where anonymous murder-victims are stripped of their flesh for lucrative export as skeletons; in the cement structure of Imelda Marcos's Film Center, which collapsed during construction burying an unknown number of workers; and beneath the squatter town of San Clemente which spills over into the Chinese cemetery.

Though Prideaux is clearly the protagonist - it is into his mind that we have the most intimate access - he has to compete for our attention with a range of other characters whose lives become intertwined as the narrative reaches its climax. There's Dingca, the cop with a 'cleanish conscience and a heavy heart'; Ysabella, the English archaeologist, whose diplomat father died years ago in Manila; Father Herrera, the bogus priest with genuine moral vision; and Epifania, inhabitant of the shanty town, who struggles to earn an honest living and keep her feckless husband Eddie in order.

When Epifania finally manages to goad Eddie and his friends into digging a new lavatory, they find their spades knocking against a skull. Later, Eddie claims, while drunk, that they've unearthed a vampire. Superstitious neighbours corroborate his tale, and San Clemente attracts unwarranted press attention. As the vampire story fades, new strangers descend on the squatters: archaeologists from the museum, tipped off about some pottery fragments found with the skull, arrive with a phalanx of police guards. Not everyone is keen on having the area dug up and searched - especially not the murderous drugs baron, Mrs Tan.

Although there are crime-thriller elements to Ghosts of Manila, its central mechanism is not suspense but allegory. The city becomes a nightmarish organism, independent of the people who inhabit it. When Prideaux meets the 'Rotting Man', a grotesquely diseased ex-soldier with tales of cannibalism on his conscience, we know he has come face to face not merely with another of Manila's victims but with something deeper - his own, and the city's, heart of darkness.