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23 August 2013

Richard Harries finds food for thought in a novel about sanctity


The Breath of Night
Michael Arditti
Arcadia Books £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.75 (use code CT559 )

MICHAEL ARDITTI is one of the few novelists these days prepared to explore issues of religious belief in their writing (Feature, 19 July). Most recently, he did this in Jubilate, which was set in Lourdes, and which explored the nature of the miraculous. His latest novel, The Breath of Night, is set in the Philippines, and the issue that, above all, he is concerned with here is not so much faith as the nature of holiness in the modern world.

Once again, we understand events through the minds of two people, approaching the same issue from two very different perspectives. It is a technique that works well.

One perspective is that of Julian Tremayne, a missionary priest in a remote Philippine village during the Marcos dictatorship. We enter his mind through the letters that he writes home to his parents. The other perspective is that of Philip Seward, who has a personal connection with Julian's family, and who is writing some years later.

The focus of the novel is Julian, as Philip tries to find out what kind of person he was. Julian championed the Communist rebels, and was himself imprisoned for the murder of a local military commander. Then he disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Since his death, a cult has grown up round him, and healings are being attributed to him. A process of canonisation is under way. But, because this process is so slow, Philip has been sent out by the family to try to speed things up.

He experiences the full horror of poverty, prostitution, corruption, and degradation of many kinds - all no better, according to his view, under Aquino than it was under Marcos. As Philip goes about his task, we encounter a number of sleazy minor characters. These are rather confusing, and this is perhaps the weakest part of the book. But, towards the end, the narrative gathers focus again. As in previous novels, the author has some remarkable surprises in store for the reader.

This capacity of Arditti to avoid predicted and predictable endings is one of his great strengths. So, too, is his ability to address age-old questions in a modern setting.

The Roman Catholic Church desires holiness of its members, and has a particular understanding of it which is required for canonisation. But, at a time of massive injustice, when guerrilla forces are trying to overthrow the old order and create a better world, in what does holiness consist? When liberation theologians are urging a new understand of what it is to be part of God's poor, does not our whole understanding of sanctity have to change?

The background for Arditti's novel is, alas, all too true to life; for the Tremayne family have major business interests in the Philippines, and the official Church is only anxious to preserve its traditional understanding of holiness, and hence its control, by encouraging a new cult. It is good to have so accomplished a novel raising issues of such importance.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford and an honorary Professor of Theology at King's College, London. His new book, The Image of Christ in Modern Art will be published by Ashgate in October.

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