Review: The Breath of Night, By Michael Arditti

Murder, mystery and Marcos all feature as Michael Arditti's gumshoe confronts dilemmas of faith, corruption, oh, and Imelda's footwear

It is a peculiarity of human nature to latch on to a disconcerting detail as an emblem of a greater tragedy. In the case of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, it is not the atrocities of martial law or the bludgeoning of the poor by the ruling elite that we remember first, but rather Imelda's shoes. In a "let them eat cake" way, it was her bulging closet that perfectly captured the shocking inequality inherent in the period and the inevitability of revolt.

In Michael Arditti's novel, The Breath of Night, that infamous footwear gets a walk-on part (more of which later) but so too does a legion of other raw juxtapositions where silver and slum live cheek by jowl. Arditti has set out to explore the complexities of religious faith, in particular Catholicism, in this morally compromised environment through the dramatic prism of a mystery. His hapless detective is Philip Seward, a failed art expert and jobbing cultural critic in present-day London. Several years after his fiancée, Julia, is killed in a car crash, Philip is called to her family seat, Whitlock Hall. At this grand Durham pile, he is presented with an unusual commission by her parents, Isabel and Hugh Olliphant.

In the 1970s, Julia's great-uncle, Julian Tremayne, had settled in the Philippines as a Catholic priest tending to a rural community under the Marcos cosh. It was a calling that culminated with his murder at the hands of Communist insurgents. Now Julian is the subject of a positio, the investigation into the validity of his canonisation. Which is where Philip comes in: the Olliphants want a man on the ground to see how Rome is getting on.

Philip's mission is precarious. Landing in Manila, he is first hit by the pulverising heat and then the bureaucracy of Church and State. He also has to fend off the clammy innuendo of Max Bradshaw, the Olliphants' ageing business associate. Max is one of a number of dubious scoundrels that Arditti expertly details: he's a camp Margot Fontayne obsessive wrapped up in a crumpled no-longer-white suit. Max foists the services of Dennis (part time go-go dancer, full-time chancer) on Philip as driver, bodyguard and palm-greaser.

It is a portentous foundation for a search for a saint but then, as Philip interviews Julian's parishioners and fellow priests, a picture emerges of a man in the throes of a crisis of faith, a portrait which sharpens through our reading of Julian's letters from the time. As the dictatorship became increasingly abhorrent, we find evidence of Julian's struggle with the constraints of peaceful protest. "I'm convinced that far from being incompatible with a priest's role, political engagement stands at its heart," writes Julian to his brother. Three decades later, Philip discovers that what followed the downfall of the administration was also deplorable.

Arditti's effective structural scaffolding, with its subjective viewpoints in each time-frame, creates a dark jigsaw piecing together a study of what it means to possess a profound religious belief in a corrupt world. And as an addendum to that question is another: what are the consequences of the Church's complicity in that corruption for its flock. The literary touchstones here are the works of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, with the former's seamy supporting characters and the latter's take on the English floundering overseas riffing through Arditti's story. In prose style, he leans more to Greene. The opening line ("I first heard of Julian Tremayne during my all-too-brief-engagement to his great niece.") echoes that of Greene's final novel Doctor Fischer of Geneva ("I think I used to detest Doctor Fischer more than any other man I have known just as I loved his daughter more than any other woman.").

There emerges a distinction between Church and faith akin to that between stage and talent. Yet there are no cheap shots at the Catholic Church, rather a litany of valid questions. The novel broaches a curious irony of contemporary society; that when it is crippled by rage, fear and materialism, when the need of spiritual sustenance is acute, it has become increasingly secular.

The Breath of Night manages deftly to avoid the narrative constraints of polemical fiction through bold characterisation and its harrowing depiction of a specific setting. Julian and Philip bear testament to a country which has passed from Spanish colonialism to US imperialism via the feudal deprivations of the Marcos years. As a result, the trajectory of the Honourable Julian Tremayne from Durham priest to potential revolutionary seems a road that is straight and true.

In one of the many moments of coal-black humour on Julian's trail, Philip is confronted with the doddering figure of Imelda Marcos at a society party. His eyes, of course, eventually drop to her feet. "Her shoes," notes Philip, "were disappointingly plain: open-toed sandals with a plastic flower on each strap." Arditti's inquiring and powerful novel ably undermines the standing of such false idols.