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And Along the Chico : RICE WINE by Barry Came (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $17.95; 320 pp.)

February 14, 1988|David Devoss | Devoss covered the Philippines for Time magazine from 1977 to 1981. and

The Communist insurgency presently threatening the Philippines began innocently enough in the early 1970s when a team of ambitious developers proposed that a series of dams be constructed along a 250-mile stretch of the Chico River in remote Northern Luzon. Their scheme made perfect sense to officials in Manila and Washington. In return for a relatively modest investment, Manila could boost its hydroelectric output by 25%. True, about 750 families would be forced off ancestral lands as the water level rose in the catchment basins. But this human disruption was deemed acceptable by the World Bank since each would be given larger, irrigated plots at a lower elevation down river.

Though the native Igorots had a mystical attachment to their land, and twice had thwarted attempts at colonization, their opposition to the project was never part of the equation. How could any tribal leader, the bankers reasoned, object to the government's offer of more land, electrification, new schools and better sanitation? The forces that transformed the Igorot opposition into a Marxist insurgency presently estimated to number 23,000 is the subject of Barry Came's first novel, "Rice Wine."

A former Newsweek correspondent with extensive experience in the Philippines, Came's fiction is rooted in fact. Several murders, a mass execution, plus a pub crawl down old Del Pilar keep the plot moving along nicely. But Came's first love and obvious forte is description. His account of upcountry travel by jeepney is a classic that ranks alongside Paul Theroux's account of Honduran soccer.

Are Western progress and Oriental values incompatible? Came clearly thinks so. Unfortunately, his technocrats are so bumbling that by the end of the book, their insensitivity seems more irritating than tragic.

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