THAT TIME IN MALOMBA

By James Hamilton-Paterson

Soho. 180 pp. $18.95

It looks as though the 1990s may be British writer James Hamilton-Paterson's decade -- at least as far as American readers are concerned.

Hamilton-Paterson has published children's books, volumes of poetry and works of nonfiction for a number of years. But it wasn't until earlier this year that one of his efforts -- his American debut, a 1987 travel book titled "Playing With Water: Passion and Solitude on a Philippine Island" -- received significant U.S. attention. In a windy but rapturous article in the New York Times Book Review, William Gass praised the book's ability to "tow you like a tide into its world of water where the words were written as if wet and have only recently dried in order to remain on the page."

Now Soho Press is bringing out Hamilton-Paterson's second novel, a mordant tale of culture clash and erotic awakening set in a country somewhere to the left of Thailand. (His first novel, "Gerontius," due out from Soho next spring, was winner of the 1989 Whitbread Award for best first novel and sounds intriguing. It's an account of Sir Edward Elgar's visit to Brazil in 1923.)

Tessa Hemony is a British 1960s dropout from a well-to-do background who joined a vaguely Buddhist commune in the Italian Alps with her husband when they were both in their twenties. Bruce, the husband, has long since vanished, snared by a new girlfriend and a job in a biochemical corporation. Left behind are Tessa and her skeptical children, 12-year-old Jason and 15-year-old Zoe, still raising herbs and tending to livestock on Italian hillsides in the 1980s. Occasionally, the trio makes pilgrimages to consult with swamis in Kashmir, Sri Lanka and other exotic locales. Something of a generation gap is creating family tension. As Jason puts it, "I'm sick of goats and sheep and gurus and healing."

Still, both kids accompany their mother wherever she goes. Their latest excursion is to the holy city of Malomba, where Tessa, suffering from severe backaches, plans to undergo "psychic surgery" at the hands of a renowned healer. Keeping them entertained while Tessa waits for her appointment is 15-year-old Laki, an economic refugee from the country's east coast. Laki is a porter at the Hotel Nirvana, where the Hemonys are staying. He lives on the hotel roof, in Robinson Crusoe-like improvised splendor, and dreams of making it big in a holy city that, with the recent influx of tourists, has suddenly become "a lot holier" and much richer.

Innocent but shrewd, Laki sees the Hemonys as people with a desire for a transcendent, but unspecified, experience in their lives. He believes "there must be a way of converting this unfocused desire into advantage, into preferment, into cash."

The Hemonys, at first suspicious of Laki, soon become dependent on him, while getting him dependent on their handouts. Apart from endless temple tours, this bridging of cultures includes surprise seductions inspired by the nameless country's national plant, the aromatic and opiate-like karesh vine.

Hamilton-Paterson might well have played out this scenario as an ugly microcosm in which foolish First World intruders get theirs, "Heart of Darkness"-style, from their unfortunate Third World victims. Or he might have portrayed a dispiriting rape of cultures brought about through mutual exploitation.

Instead, he's done something lighter and less predictable. The Hemonys may be gullible, but their money and freedom of movement protect them in ways that clearsighted Laki has trouble recognizing. Once the show's over, the worst that has happened is both parties are a little befuddled and only marginally wiser as to what makes the other tick. The author sympathetically portrays the appeal and pitfalls that the sampling of unfamiliar cultures holds for Tessa. He's also deeply sympathetic to Laki's limited possibilities in making a life for himself and frankly admiring of the boy's resourcefulness within those limitations.

"That Time in Malomba" reads as if it might have been written by a kinder and gentler Paul Theroux (think of a toned-down "Girls at Play" or "Jungle Lovers"). Hamilton-Paterson may not have Theroux's acid edge, but he delivers a seamless wry intelligence and tart turn of phrase on every page. His analysis of the Hemonys' resistance to 1980s trends is a gem: "Even when traveling about the world they managed to preserve a cordon sanitaire of herbalist naivete between themselves and what they encountered."

He can also be engagingly silly. The motto of Malomba's Bank of the Divine Louts (BDL) is "Where Purity Meets Security."

While he does poke fun at Tessa's susceptibility to all things Eastern, he clearly is drawn to the Buddhist culture that attracts her: "Who would not ally themselves with a philosophy represented by the still, rapt figure of the contemplative rather than with a religion whose sign was a gibbet?"

The dialogue -- Laki's pidgin English and Tessa's rhapsodies over her swami ("How that divine man surrounds us with light. How lucky we are!") -- has its limitations. It makes the book more of an airy spoof than trenchant satire. But there's no doubt that Hamilton-Paterson has a sharp eye for the nutty mix-and-match of cultures precipitated by the jet age.

As a traveler and former journalist, he's someone who's been places and has something to say about them. He's also a gifted writer, a talent to watch.

The reviewer's novels include "Air" and "The Flame Forest."