by Eça de Queirós [translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa]
Since I saw the "steamy" Mexican film adaptation of The Crime of Father Amaro long before I ever got around to reading Eça de Queirós' outrageous Portuguese original, I was pleased to discover how fresh and humorous a novel this is despite the devastation that lies in wait for several of its key characters. Seriously, whoever would have thought that a self-destructive love affair between a provincial parish priest and one of his beautiful parishioners could prove so amusing? Perhaps because Eça was more interested in exposing the hypocrisy of his times than in delivering a traditional morality tale, few people or things are spared when it comes to skewering his victims. Early on, for example, the narrator introduces us to an odd devotional work said to be "both devout and titillating" and "breathing mystical lust"; not content with a full paragraph of such descriptions, he then gleefully blurts out, "it is the canonical Spanish fly!" (88). Elsewhere, malicious Tacitean slander is the weapon of choice used to eviscerate one unfortunate character's reputation ("He always looked rather grimy, and his sallow, effeminate face and debauched eyes spoke of ancient, infamous vices" ). Given the novel's focus on sham piety, the characters naturally badmouth each other as well: Canon Dias' joking description of his sister as "a veritable Grand Inquisitor in skirts," while undoubtedly deserved after an excess of religious zeal has led the bitter old maid to burn the personal items once belonging to an unfairly excommunicated romantic rival of Father Amaro's, is entirely typical of the more playful sorts of attacks (269). Aside from the humorous touches and the anti-clerical satire, I just greatly enjoyed Eça de Quierós as a stylist. Here are two almost Proustian soundbites. On the Marquesa de Alegros, one of Father Amaro's patrons: "Her two daughters, having been brought up both to fear Heaven and to care deeply about Fashion, were at once excessively devout and terribly chic, speaking with equal fervour about Christian humility and the latest clothes from Brussels. A journalist of the time said of them: 'Every day they worry about what dress they should wear when it comes to their turn to enter Paradise'" (24). On a lecherous city administrator: "And with that, he turned on his heel and went out onto the balcony in his office--the same balcony on which, every day, between eleven and three, he defiled Teles' wife with his gaze, all the while twirling his blonde moustaches and smoothing his blue cravat" (257). Having talked up Eça's comedic and descriptive flourishes for long enough, I should probably note that the illicit love affair between Father Amaro and Amélia, while well-depicted throughout in terms of the characters' sexual tension, "courtship" and jealousy and startlingly situated against the social backdrop of a Portugal in transition (i.e. the Church and monarchy vs. secularism and republicanism), does take a predictable turn for the worse near the end. While I'm not sure that the novelist really could have written his way out of that 19th century ending, in one sense it doesn't matter at all because he entertainingly keeps you off guard throughout most of the novel--and virtually all of Portuguese society gets blasted by the final page. In short, a fine and unexpectedly edgy read. (www.ndpublishing.com)
Eça de Queirós
Having wanted to read The Crime of Father Amaro for at least two or three years but never quite able to get my act together for it on my own, I'd like to thank Amateur Reader (Tom) for the push provided by his Portuguese Literature Challenge that's now in session over at Wuthering Expectations. Tom, Litlove of Tales from the Reading Room, and possibly one or two others will also be writing about The Crime of Father Amaro on their own blogs sometime soon (update: Litlove's review can now be found here). Until then, here's one more Eça de Queirós broadside for you from pages 123-124 of the Margaret Jull Costa New Directions translation:
What did it matter to him that he had the right to open or close the doors of Heaven? What he wanted was the ancient right to open or close the doors of dungeons! He wanted clerks and Amélias to tremble at the mere shadow cast by his cassock. He would have liked to have been a priest in the old Church, when he would have enjoyed the advantages brought by the power of denunciation and by the kind of terror that an executioner inspires, and there, in that town, under the jurisdiction of his Cathedral, he would have made all those who aspired to the joys that were forbidden to him tremble at the thought of excruciating punishments, and, thinking of João Eduardo and Amélia, he regretted not being able to bring back the bonfires of the Inquisition! In the grip of a fury provoked by thwarted passion, this inoffensive young man spent hours nursing grandiose ambitions of Catholic tyranny, for there is always a moment when even the most stupid priest is filled by the spirit of the Church in one of its two phases, that of mystical renunciation or that of world domination; every subdeacon at one time or another believes himself capable of being either a saint or a Pope; there is not a single seminarian who has not, albeit for an instant, aspired longingly to that cave in the desert in which St Jerome, looking up at the starry sky, felt Grace flow into his heart like an abundant river of milk; and even the potbellied parish priest who, at close of day, sits on his balcony probing the hole in his tooth with a toothpick or, with a paternal air, slowly sips his cup of coffee, even he carries within him the barely perceptible remnants of a Grand Inquisitor.