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A Novel Journey Into the Steamy Heart of Manila : MACARTHUR'S GHOST by P.F. Kluge (Arbor House: $17.95; 336 pp.)

December 13, 1987|David DeVoss and Times staff writer DeVoss covered the Philippines for four years as a correspondent for Time magazine.

When D. H. Lawrence published "Twilight in Italy" in 1916, one reviewer complained that instead of simply describing what he saw and experienced, Lawrence "preferred the easier course of discovering the Infinite." In short, all his reasoning was inductive; in every conversation he found more ethos.

In this respect, novelist P. F. Kluge resembles his romantic predecessor. Like Lawrence, he has a keen ear for dialogue, an ability to make what is alien seem exotic, and a fascination with societies in turmoil. The latter no doubt attracted him to the Marcos-era Philippines, which serves as the setting for his fourth book, "MacArthur's Ghost."

The February, 1986, coup that sent Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fleeing from Manila has prompted a flood of political books on the Philippines. During the next nine months, six more books are scheduled for publication. Written by distinguished journalists such as Stanley Karnow, Lewis Simons and Time magazine's Sandra Burton, each will show how corruption within the Marcos oligopoly (once euphemistically called "crony capitalism") eventually led to the People Power revolution.

Though he is the author of three previous novels, in such company Kluge could suffer by comparison. He avoids that risk by eschewing the political intrigues of Malacanang Palace and the tensions that continue to destabilize the nation. In "MacArthur's Ghost," Ferdinand and Imelda appear only briefly, and then only as foils for a larger cast composed of society doyennes , grizzled expatriates, ambitious diplomats and mercurial soldiers, each of whom provides a different perspective on the unique relationship linking America and its former colony.

Kluge examines the Philippines through the fictional eyes of George Griffin, an "investigative travel writer." Bored with his column, "Faraway Places and Backyard Adventures," Griffin junkets to the Philippines looking for a story he can live rather than write.

His arrival coincides with that of Harry Roberts Harding, a missionary's son raised in the Philippines who, together with other American GIs, took refuge in the mountains following the departure of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and joined some Filipino guerrillas. Brought back as a publicity stunt by a movie company filming the story of that guerrilla war against the Japanese, Harding--known as "MacArthur's Ghost" because of his exploits--asks Griffin to collaborate on a book that will tell the real story.

Together they roam through the mountainous parts of Luzon where American and Filipino guerrillas fought, reliving, in the process, the disaster of Bataan, the rise and betrayal of the Huk insurgency and the Japanese retreat into the Kiangen Pocket that gave rise to rumors of Gen. Yamashita's gold treasure.

The travels result in the inevitable series of war stories, but, instead of weighing down the narrative, the stories give a sense of the beauty and pace of the rural Philippines. The scenes of a village at dawn--when dogs, having risen to stretch, flop back down in the dust, and men start to zigzag across paddy dikes to their rice plots--take on more importance with the realization that rural life has changed little since the Philippines gained independence.

Invariably, the up-country journeys of Griffin and Harding always loop back to Manila, a city whose "air was fog and sweat and steam that smelled of garbage fires and cooking and diesel fumes and, just possibly, the sea." As Kluge correctly observes, the city is scarred by the neon signs of franchised food that delineate U.S. hegemony in much of East Asia. "Pizza Hut and Shakey's. They're like the mission stations the Spaniards built in California, fortress, church and business all combined."

Griffin finds a society whose people play angles instead of choosing sides. "The men, affable, clubby little philanderers, strutted and stroked while the women they played with played for higher stakes."

How could a chauvinistic country full of sexual innuendo and pro forma infidelity produce women so strong? If sin does not necessarily defile, does virtue always beautify? Kluge has his burnt-out ghostwriter ponder these and other less printable questions during lengthy sessions in Manila's go-go emporia. Unfortunately, his sophomoric conclusions reveal more about the libido of P. F. Kluge than the relationship that has allowed Manila and Washington to remain allies despite the colonial experience and the Marcos dictatorship.

"MacArthur's Ghost" is travel writing presented as fiction. As a concept it works very well, and many of its descriptive passages are brilliantly written. But what could have served as a lively complement to the more ponderous works to come is marred by glib and often gamy sections that will leave readers more aroused than informed.

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