British author Michael Arditti set his latest novel in the Philippines
LONDON - English writer Michael Arditti turned his sights to the Philippines for his latest novel, “The Breath of Night,” where he explores uncomfortable truths about religion and corruption through the journey of two British protagonists from different generations.
With an unsolved mystery at its core, the book follows a British priest as he settles in the Philippines in the 1970s amid the sociopolitical turmoil simmering under the infamous Marcos regime.
“He becomes increasingly involved in the lives of his parishioners and the struggle of a time with the dictatorship, when individual priests, nuns and monks were the only opposition to the government. And he is forced to decide not where his loyalties lie, but how far he takes the gospel," Arditti told ABS-CBN Europe at a gala evening in his honor from the Intercultural Society of London.
“There are contradictions in the gospel. And for me, sitting in comfortable London, that’s an intellectual and theological question I’ve got to resolve for myself. But for a priest in the Philippines in the 1970s, it’s actually a life and death issue."
In the book, the story of the priest turns into local legend in the next 50 years that follows, until the arrival of a young British investigator opens up questions unraveling mysteries of the past.
"Gradually the two stories of the priest and the young man from today cohere, and that’s really what the book is about," Arditti explained.
“And it’s really about the complication of people from different cultures coming together and understanding them. It’s not an impossibility because they do in the end.”
Religion set against different cultural landscapes is a common thread in Arditti's work, often exploring faith and its nuances, like the juxtaposition of sex and spirituality in London from his debut, “The Celibate”, or the blurred lines of romance and morality in Lourdes from his recent work, “Jubilate”. And once again in “The Breath of Night”, his 8th and latest novel, set in a familiar yet fictitious town of San Isidro in the Philippine provinces.
“I got very interested in writing about a culture that is different from my own. And I thought I wanted to do better next time, to go out of Europe, and decided that rather to go to South America or Africa, I’d go to Asia,” he revealed.
“The great thing for me about the Philippines is the Catholicism. It’s very different from Catholicism over here [in the UK], and in fact I’m an Anglican to make it even more different.”
“A nation of terrific contrasts”
The Philippines, known as the most established Christian nation in Southeast Asia, was a natural choice for Arditti, particularly because of the strong ties between the Catholic church and the state, making it an interesting study in both harmony and conflict.
“For me it was exciting because as a novelist you want to take ambiguity,” he shared. “You don’t just want to say something is good or bad. You’ll want to look at it in all its different facets. And the church in the Philippines seems to me to lend itself to that.”
The British author went on extensive trips to the archipelago for his research, visiting Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao in two separate journeys lasting three weeks each time. And in his travels he saw different kinds of places with different types of people, from sprawling megacities and provincial towns, to world-renowned beaches and indigenous villages. Arguably, he has seen more of the Philippines than an average Filipino would in his lifetime.
Among his most vivid memories was a visit to Marinduque, where he attended the colorful Moriones Festival with its fascinating masks and costumes, closely followed by an encounter with a tribe weaving by a lake in Mindanao, where people were “almost living in the neolithic age.”
“I met some absolutely wonderful people, the guides and people I was introduced to. What was heartbreaking for me was that people who were much poorer than me wouldn’t let me help them when I was being entertained,” he observed.
But beyond the wonderful hospitality and arresting scenery, Arditti was able to peek into the reality of life in the country, seeing for himself the extent of poverty, corruption and inadequate infrastructure that plagues many developing countries.
“My trip was inevitably cultural more than social,” he admitted, “but I thought it was a beautiful and wonderful country, but at the same time a country with terrible problems.”
Problems that are wrapped in “terrific contrasts” as he discovered starting from the moment he arrived in the capital. With a slight difficulty in walking, he was surprised to find the lack of sufficient facilities and infrastructure for people with special needs, considering the seemingly modern and metropolitan setting which in parts could equal global cities like Singapore or Hong Kong.
He also witnessed corruption first hand at different levels of society. He even recalls a moment when a police officer asked for bribe from a private car he was riding, which is altogether at odds with the values fostered by a supposedly religious nation.
Most of all, he was appalled by the wide inequality between the rich and the rest of society. He was saddened to see extreme poverty in slums in contrast to the tremendous luxury flaunted by the wealthy few. He vividly remembers, for instance, being a guest at a mansion in one of the gated communities where the taps were literally gilded with gold, while people struggle just outside the security of its high walls.
“I felt this is wrong,” he said passionately. “Nobody expects a society where everybody is totally equal. But the gaps between rich and poor in the Philippines is just too big.”
Crucially, he notices a general sense of “fatalism” in the attitudes of the Filipino people as a whole, arguably reinforced by religious dogma from the dominant Catholic church.
“You have wonderful things that the church has done, but at the same time it is keeping people down with a sense that life is unimportant with what happens in this world, because you have the hope of promise to come,” he pondered.
“God gave us this world to do the best in, and it’s absolutely disgraceful that millions of people are living lives of abject poverty in the hope of happiness to come. They should have happiness now just as we do.”
Arditti’s publisher, Gary Pulsifer from Arcadia Books, believes his latest offering delivers an interesting insight into a country still carving its position in the global arena.
“It looks at layers of Filipino society, from the high life in Manila to rural peasantry. It’s a very serious and interesting novel,” he said.
“There’s a certain resonance in this book, and I who know very little about the Philippines learned a tremendous amount about the various peoples and cultures and atmosphere of life in the Philippines today.”
“The Breath of Night” by Michael Arditti is out now.