Book review: The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti

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Michael Arditti is an unusual novelist for our time, and one who has become more ambitious and more assured over the years. He is unusual in that he takes religion, and religious faith, seriously; he writes of the soul rather than the heart, and crime in his novels may also be sin.

The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti

Arcadia Books, 386pp, £11.99

At the same time, he has a native exuberance, even extravagance, evident in his relish for colour and detail. It may be said that this relish sometimes causes him to neglect the importance of proportion, and thus spoil his great design by prolonging scenes after their point has been made.

Nevertheless, anyone who ventures into the dense jungle of his narrative will find much that is entrancing, much that is moving, and much that will provoke thought, even perhaps a revision of previously settled opinion and sense of values.

The outline of his new novel is simple. Some years ago, an English priest, Fr Julian Tremayne, member of an old Catholic family, was murdered in the Philippines, apparently by Communists.

Now Philip, a young man, whose fiançée has recently been killed in a car crash, is asked by her parents to go to the Philippines to try to collect evidence which will further the campaign for the canonisation of Fr Julian, his late fiançée’s great-uncle. He is generously financed by her father, Hugh, who himself has business interests in the Philippines.

Most of the novel takes the form of a third person narrative recounting Philip’s experiences. This is interspersed with ten letters from Fr Julian, to his parents or brother. These cover the period from 1971 to 1989 (the year of his reported martyrdom), and trace the development of his understanding of his faith and the economic and political conditions in the Philippines.

The letters themselves may call the official verdict into question, though they do not prepare us for the dramatic last chapter of Philip’s story. That story itself, we learn in an afterword, from Hugh, may not be all it pretends to be.

This is the structure and it is a good one. Arditti never allows the reader to take a settled view. Philip’s narrative is lively, full of incident and keen observation. He himself is a classic innocent abroad, who will be forced by his experiences and observations to lose his innocence and have his certainties unsettled.

He finds a country which is delightful and horrifying, oppressed by politics and corruption, where a devout and even intense Catholicism has apparently accommodated the older spirit religion of the indigenous population. The extremes of wealth and poverty appal him; likewise the ubiquity of abuse – sexual, economic and political. Arditti’s research has evidently been thorough. Sometimes he makes excessive use of it, so that it may tend to smother his narrative. Nevertheless, his picture of the Philippines is vivid, compelling and disturbing.

This is also primarily a novel of ideas, and these are explored in the development of Fr Julian’s thought. Put simply, the argument is this. Is the Church hierarchy right to proclaim, as it adheres to the established order and collaborates with political power, that the duty of priests is to preach the faith and save souls, or should it (as Fr Julian comes to believe) resist economic and political oppression and engage in direct action to effect reform, even if that means revolution.

It is an old argument, and one that never quite goes away. Arditti teases it out, invites – even forces – the reader to consider the moral or ethical implications of both conformity and nonconformity. He is fair to both sides, doesn’t load the argument, though readers may be in little doubt as to which he has come to favour.

This is a rich and complex novel. There is comedy too amid the horrors, and there are moments of tenderness. Arditti has explored the question of the morality of terrorism before, notably in Unity, and the conflict between faith and reason in other works. But this, despite my modest strictures, is perhaps his finest novel yet. Its subject is important, its execution generally assured. It invites you to think and forces you to feel; and this is what a novel should do.