James Hamilton-Paterson is a former journalist who writes novels like a poet. He has published two books of poetry and won the Newdigate Prize for poetry from Oxford University, his alma mater, in 1964. He worked as a free-lance journalist and for The Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman from 1968 to 1974. He was born in England but has chosen to live in foreign lands—mostly in the Philippines and Tuscany—for much of his adult life.
Ghosts of Manila, his thirteenth published work, reads more like a poetic travelogue than a novel. The slow-paced plot, told from many different viewpoints, is sometimes hard to follow. The book becomes fascinating, however, because the author knows his subject thoroughly and writes with great visual intensity. The lethargic pacing seems appropriate to the subject: It mimics the spirit of an ancient land that has seen Spanish, American, and Japanese conquerors come and go while the resilient native people remain relatively unchanged.
The author’s anonymous third-person narrator has a charming sense of humor reminiscent of Graham Greene, another English writer who forsook his bland little island and traveled the world in search of exotic settings and colorful characters. It is impossible to convey an accurate impression of Hamilton-Paterson’s style without a few quotations. Here is his throwaway description of a fighting cock: “Its wattles glowed with rich blood; the sun burnished its metallic plumes until they bled gold and copper and bronze; the proud arch of its tail dribbled inky lights.” Here is a casual glimpse of the background in a Chinese restaurant: “In tanks along one wall mournful eels gulped and furious crustacea attacked each other in slow motion.” Hamilton-Paterson’s humor is wry: “This was a Squires Bingham .38 [pistol] of local manufacture, generally rated as life-threatening to all except the person being fired at.” “The economic position [of the Philippines] might be summarised as that of a banana republic which imports its bananas.”
The author clearly knows Manila. The reader is left with the impression of having seen the Philippine capital more thoroughly than any tourist who jets in and jets out after staying at the Philippine Plaza Hotel and visiting the obligatory attractions. Many of the sights the author unveils are not pretty. His opening pages describe a small factory where the Chinese proprietors chop up human bodies and reassemble the boiled, dried, and lacquered bones into skeletons for export to medical schools. The skeleton-makers prudently do not ask where the corpses come from but are no doubt aware that some were murdered for the specific purpose of being sold to their “chop shop.”
The most appalling business of all is child prostitution. Manila, according to Hamilton-Paterson, is a mecca for perverts who not only enjoy sexual intercourse with children but get an added thrill from murdering them afterward. Boys and girls are kidnapped off the streets; others are purchased from ignorant peasants who believe that their offspring will be given vocational opportunities in the big city. Life is cheap in the Philippines.
These victims are some of the “ghosts” of Manila. Others are workmen killed in badly designed, graft-ridden construction projects funded by the corrupt government. Still others are petty criminals who are brutally murdered by the police in order to save the time, trouble, and expense of trials and incarceration.
Hamilton-Paterson’s story mainly deals with the life and death of San Clemente, an enormous squatter colony built out of salvaged wood, metal, cardboard, concrete blocks, and anything else the more affluent Manilenos have thrown away or neglected to lock up. The book opens with a description of Manila as a tourist might see it, coming in for a landing near what the author describes as “the pinchbeck Manhattan of a new commercial centre” and roaring over San Clemente without noticing the barefoot children playing amid pools of raw sewage crossed by duckboards. It...
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