Friends warned Michael Arditti not to write about religion, but that hasn't stopped him

Michael Arditti has dedicated his life to literature: he has written for the stage and radio, and more recently produced a string of well-received novels. His Easter, which is set in an Anglican parish over Holy Week – a parish analogous to but in no way resembling St Mark’s, Regent’s Park, where the author himself worships – is his most successful novel to date. A further novel, The Enemy of the Good, deals with a wide spectrum of religious belief, including life in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, secular Humanism, and Anglicanism of the most liberal kind. But in his last two books he has turned his attention full on the panting heart of Rome. Jubilate is a love story set in Lourdes, and The Breath of Night, his latest, which I met him to discuss, is set in the Philippines. Its hero is a missionary priest who is transformed by the call of Liberation Theology.

Friends, Arditti tells me, warned him off writing about religion, for religious fiction has, one might think, all the appeal of novels dealing with “agrarian reform in the reign of King Stephen”. But Arditti points out that religion was once a popular topic with writers, and that its importance, though nowadays obscured, is not diminished, given that faith defines so many aspects of life – not just culture and morality, but also our way of relating to others, and our way of dealing with death. His interest in Liberation Theology has led him to fascinating places. Just as his love story set in Lourdes was a first (it’s a brilliant idea: why did no one else think of it?), his Philippines novel breaks new ground as well. Though three contemporary British writers have set novels in the country, none has done so in the Marcos era.

And yet the Philippines is a supremely interesting place to write about, as the novel makes clear. Arditti has travelled widely in the islands, several of which are paradisiacal, though these do not feature in the novel. The Breath of Night is a descriptive novel (something of a departure for him) but the setting is not background, let alone wallpaper; unlike Graham Greene, Arditti does not place Europeans in remote locations, where they hardly engage with their environment. Rather, he has two very different Englishmen utterly drawn in by an alien culture. The first is Fr Julian Tremayne, a missionary in the Marcos era. The second is Philip Seward, who, with his more secular mindset, has come out to investigate, on behalf of Julian’s family, the claims made for the priest’s sainthood.

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As an Anglican, Arditti looks at Catholicism from the outside, with the sharpness of observation that those of us on the inside might have lost. In Lourdes he sees the inspirational side of Catholicism, and admires the love that sustains the sick and the handicapped. But in the Philippines, he portrays Catholicism as oppressive; while individual priests struggle for justice against the vested interests of big money, the institutional Church is far more nuanced in its relationship with power – indeed, compromised. After all, the rich of the Philippines are devout Catholics, too, and that includes the most famous of them all, Imelda Marcos, to whom Arditti was introduced and who makes two guest appearances in the novel. To a British audience she may seem an almost comic figure (there is the obligatory and amusing reference to her shoes), but she is macabre as well. Now in her 80s, Imelda shows barely a flicker of life, but she bursts into song at the slightest invitation. She undeniably has blood on her hands, but she seems unaware of it.

Is this a book about another stinking Third World hellhole? There’s no denying that Arditti’s descriptive powers bring the place powerfully alive – and it is wonderful that this is so, as it restores fiction to its historic role of opening people’s eyes to the world we would rather not know about. The Philippines are a land not just of contrast but of paradox: deeply Catholic, yet in the Marcos era 80,000 prostitutes operated in Angeles City; theft and corruption and violence are routine. Quiapo is home to the Black Nazarene, whose fiesta draws a crowd of six million, making it the largest religious event on earth, yet the church square is where abortifacient herbs are sold. Catholicism is everywhere, yet folk beliefs in spirits persist.

But none of this is depressing. The book is shot through with tragedy but also with much humour and hope as well. Arditti clearly loves the Philippines and its people. He speaks of its fiestas as moments of communal hope which enable people to survive the poverty around them. On one such occasion a little boy led him into a parish church to show him the statue of Christ, saying: “Jesus Christ, He is so beautiful!”

Arditti is critical of the Church’s teaching on contraception, which he sees as perpetuating the problem of poverty. Yet when I ask him whether he sees the Church as surviving for another generation (secularists seem to suggest the last hour has come, after all) he is insistent that it will. The Church, he says, has hope, because its message is true.

It is the truth of the message of Jesus Christ that motivates his lead character, Fr Julian. But how far should we take that message? That is the question posed by Liberation Theology. Do we take “I come to bring not peace but a sword” to its logical conclusion? These are the sorts of questions that Arditti’s literary hero Dostoyevsky poses: moral questions that arise in extremis. Thank goodness someone is still asking them.

Arditti’s fiction is serious, while at the same time touching, funny, thrilling, engrossing and never less than fascinating. The pages turn fast, and the reader is rewarded with a surprise ending – indeed, a double surprise – which one must not give away. For his next novel he is going to tackle a domestic subject, and then it will be back to religion for Michael Arditti, for which anyone who loves fiction must be grateful.

The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti, Arcadia Books, £11.99

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 16/8/13

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