domingo, 30 de octubre de 2011

The Crime of Father Amaro

The Crime of Father Amaro [O crime do Padre Amaro] (New Directions, 2003)
by Eça de Queirós [translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa]
Portugal, 1880

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" [144]).  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.  (

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.

9 comentarios:

  1. Between this post and Amateur Reader's ongoing posts, I'm going to have to give The Crime of Father Amaro a go. I have seen it in the bookshop, but just not quite been moved enough to purchase a copy. Next time I see it, I will.

  2. I am 40% finished, but I, too, have seen the Mexican film, so I have a pretty good guess where we are going, although I am curious to see if there is any equivalent of the movie's liberation theology subplot.

    E. de Q. has been really impressive. He is so good with characters - the two leads, almost all of the minor characters. The psychology is good, which is central - believable, well motivated - but the little gestures, the moves off of the main path are just as good. Amaro's fantasies about being an Inquisitor (or Pope!) for example.

    I knew that the novel was anti-clerical, but did not know that it is also anti-anti-clerical, that the anti-clericalist characters are as petty, hypocritical, self-interested, and self-satsified as the priests. Yes, everyone gets it in the end.

  3. *James: I'm pretty confident you'll find it an entertaining work. What a storyteller! And even though it "gets serious" toward the end, I laughed throughout at Eça's comedic stylings and oddball descriptive tendencies.

    *Tom: The "moves off of the main path" that you mention helped make this book for me for sure. The weird book descriptions about "sonorous lines...tumescent with desire" (89). The listening to creaking floorboards. The tormented dream sequences. All the moustache-twirling. I could have easily spent two or three posts trying to fit in all my favorite parts and quotes from Eça, but I'll look forward instead to what you and Litlove have to say about the novel (the last couple of pages of the book, in my mind at least, are exquisite).

  4. I seem to remember at first I hated the clerk figure: he was ugly and the girl cleaarly preferred Amaro; but then later I began to feel a bit of sympathy for him, and I felt E de Q had been deliberately misleading me. But it was a while ago now.

    I find myself wondering if Zola's La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret might be a similar novel - if only based on the title. I think I may read it soon. I'm sure Zola can out-anti-cleric E de Q.

  5. *Obooki: I wonder if Eça de Queirós deliberately misled us both then because I had a fairly similar reaction to how João Eduardo was portrayed. Of course, I was also willing to blame Amélia for not being able to make up her mind about which man was better for her--how typical! P.S. I'd be interested in reading any book that could out-cleric this one--was a little surprised how imaginatively aggressive Eça was given the times, but he did it with such brio that I can only commend him his impertinences.

  6. Yes, someone please read The Sin of Father Mouret, which sounds completely cracked, based on the wiki summary. An outstanding line: "As with many of Zola's earlier works, the novel then builds to a horrible climax."

  7. Richard - this is a fantastic review of the novel, scintillating and sharp-eyed. My reading experience was pretty much identical to yours and I appreciated the humorously satirical perspective and the excellent character descriptions. The 19th century ending attracted my attention, too, as a reinstatement of a kind of superstition that up until now had been thoroughly undermined. But then that final chapter was a zinger and I ended up feeling that Father Amaro was a - what's that word my son uses? - a douchbag of the highest order. I haven't seen the Mexican film of this, but was comparing it mentally to Madame Bovary as I went along. It had more piquancy and more entertainment value, that's for sure.

  8. I wanted to join you with this one as well but time...
    It sounds like a fantastic read. The unmasking of hyprocrisy, when done well rarely fails to amuse. I know hardly any Portuguese writers apart from Pessoa.
    I will get to it sooner or later.
    What happened to the Grande Sertao reading plan? I bought !

  9. *Tom: Thanks for sharing that Zola wiki nugget--I hope its author is busy blogging steadily somewhere 'cause that's just a sheer crack-up!

    *Litlove: Thanks! I kind of cheated, though, and just used that post as a pretext to dump as many choice Eça de Queirós quotes as I could into one entry. As far as the Father Amaro vs. Madame Bovary comparisons go, I'd have a hard time choosing between the two books; the Portuguese novel's definitely more entertaining and more "humane" in its (occasional) compassion for its characters, but the French one's more interestingly written and compelling to me in some ways (as with some of the almost animistic passages where the earth seems to be responding to Emma Bovary's romantic ups and downs). Both novels have absolutely classic endings, though, definitely.

    *Caroline: Ah, too bad, about the time thing because it was a completely entertaining book with some unexpected satirical "excesses"! I think it'd be a real crowd pleaser--in a good way--if more people gave it a chance. The Guimarãres Rosa book fell victim to my illusions that I could actually plan any sort of long-term reading in advance, but I'm hopeful I can make room for another try with it before the end of the year or at least early in the new year. It's still near the top of my mental queue, but I have too many other big books (and reading challenge books, hint hint) lined up or in progress to say for sure. Will look forward to your review once you get around to it, though, and hopefully we can sync up. Cheers!