BOOK REVIEW / Gouging out hell's entrails: Ghosts of Manila - James Hamilton-Paterson: Jonathan Cape pounds 14.99

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FOR SOME time now we have known that hell is a place on earth, whose geography ranges from the bogs of Buchenwald to the pits of Rwanda. One might ask whether further exploration is necessary. What can fiction achieve that is not already conjured up by the mere mention of these place names?

Much, according to James

Hamilton-Paterson in his superb novel, Ghosts of Manila. Hell is the present-day Philippines where little has changed since the ousting of the Marcoses. The catalogue of atrocities is wearily familiar, even though human invention always seems capable of devising new monstrosities, such as building an edifice over the still live bodies of injured workers, or sucking out a man's entrails by means of an industrial hoover originally designed for sewers.

But Ghosts of Manila is not merely a prurient rehearsal of horrors: they are there, the horrors, but what concerns the reader more are the people's methods of everyday survival, the language devised for that survival, and the hopeful courage that barely restrains them from bursting into madness. The Malay coined the word 'amok' to describe the psychic state reached by a person at breaking point, in which his (less frequently, her) behaviour becomes suddenly wild and murderous. Ghosts of Manila chronicles an entire society on the brink of running amok.

A British journalist-cumsociologist, John Prideaux, arrives in Manila ostensibly to investigate the phenomenon of amok. He has no faith in his profession. Earlier in his career, he uncovered a child prostitution network in Thailand where the victims were murdered, but failed to get his television documentary broadcast. He now sees himself merely as a detached, cynical observer. His counterpart is a Filipino policeman, Rio Dingca, who tries to maintain an uneasy balance between the corrupt system in which he works, and his personal - and readjustable - sense of honour. Dingca in turn is challenged by Epifania Tugos, who has set up a sewing co-operative in the slums, and who demands from Dingca proof of that honour. The fourth character is Ysabella Bastiaan, a British archeologist who has returned to the place where her diplomat father was murdered and whose search is both for her own and for Manila's past.

History generally has two narrators, the protagonist and the witness, who often, in the telling, change roles with one another. In Ghosts of Manila, the witnesses and protagonists end up trading places. The outsiders, the British visitors, ultimately find that the story they are witnessing is as much their own as that of the natives: Prideaux learns that detachment isn't possible; and Baastian discovers that through her father she too has visceral links with the place whose past she's digging up. The Filipinos, the prime sufferers, are in the end their own chroniclers, those through whose voices the story becomes history: Dingca because he has been entrusted with the truth, Tugos because the burden of memory is hers.

The reader too is drawn into this game of shifting roles: it is impossible not to feel that something private, in us, is being shown on the page, that in some way we too are being accused. There is a 'we' at the beginning of the book that should be regarded as a warning. The reader will not be allowed to be a bystander. Even feeling guilty is not enough. 'What,' asks one of the characters of his dictatorial God, 'the whole of humanity, every last one of us? Until guilt loses all moral meaning and becomes simply another attribute like warm-blooded, mammalian, air- breathing, bipedal?'

Ghosts of Manila has the intensity of a thriller, the precision of a documentary, and the authority of great fiction. The meticulous, even baroque, style suits its complex subject admirably. Hamilton- Paterson succeeds in giving his narrative a sense of universal relevance. As Prideaux is on the plane leaving Manila, he looks out at 'the cold silver wing . . . polished by the moon and he is drawn into the invisible planet's majestic emptiness'. The history we have learnt, Hamilton-Paterson implies, cannot he dismissed as the news of merely one time or one place.