The Breath of Night tells two stories; that of Julian Tremayne, missionary priest in the Philippines, and Philip Seward, the young man sent out to investigate what had happened to Tremayne three decades after he was killed by communist guerrillas on a remote mountainside. This is a steady but compelling read: what begins as a somewhat humorous account of an Englishman out of his depth in an alien world morphs into a dark and complex story that tests the link between spirituality and revolutionary politics.
The space for Arditti to explore this link is the Philippines, which gains most of its character and poignancy through contrast with the Tremayne family back in England. The family Julian writes to, and the people who send Philip out to investigate his death, are something out of a novel set a century earlier, owing to the fact that they maintain a ‘family seat, Whitlock in county Durham’, that has an ‘east wing’ and ‘russet brickwork’, and is inhabited by posh, stuffy old English types. This sets the framework for the novel as a colonial commentary, a story of the white man’s experience of an unfamiliar and exotic country, a space where he works out his political and spiritual views once he is forced to look real poverty and exploitation in the eye.
As a colonial commentary, there is something of a double standard which is perhaps too easy to swallow; Arditti looks fondly on his English aristocrats, but is ruthless with the Americans, whose colonial presence he decries as the primary reason for the violent prostitution of the nation’s women, men and children. Both Julian and Philip witness the horrors of the Philippine sex industry and Arditti does an admirable job of presenting it unflinchingly and yet with great sensitivity. He is unafraid to point the finger, and there is little room for a villain to have a smack of humanity, or for a victim to escape their situation. Arditti’s Philippines is a world of binaries, in which the characters are either good or evil, victims or abusers.
Although Arditti deals with such troubling subject matter, he uses the aristocratic tendencies of the Tremayne family for some welcome comic relief. Philip adapts well to the Philippines but his delicate English sensibility is frequently violated, such as when he meets the Vicar General, and finds himself ‘startled to see that his socks were the same deep purple as his sash’. Julian is a little more eloquent, and is both humorous and damning with his comments on western consumerism: ‘Surely freedom means more than a choice between twenty-five brands of cornflakes?’ It is in Julian’s questions, which progressively become more serious and troubling, where the novel truly excels.
The mystery of The Breath of Night hinges on a question: is Julian a Saint, or a revolutionary? At first, Arditti seems to suggest that he can only be one or the other, but Philip’s investigations begin to reveal that the line is less clear cut than he supposed. While the trend towards religion in contemporary fiction often leans towards atheism and a distinct distrust of organised religion, Arditti treats Catholicism with respect and reverence, while simultaneously investigating and testing the boundaries of its moral teaching. He puts it face to face with the reality of poverty and exploitation, and finds that while it is inadequate, it also offers some answers, and has the potential to do a great deal of good.
Though The Breath of Night poses as a colonial novel, it is true and heartfelt, always compelling, and often incredibly funny. Perhaps not a bedtime story, but an essential read to reconcile religion with politics, and understand the legacy of a colonial past that leaves an uncomfortable mark on the Philippines today.
The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti is published by Arcadia Books, £11.99