My literary tour of the EU begins with a novel from Portugal, The Crime of Father Amaro: Scenes from the Religious Life (O Crime do Padre Amaro) by Eça de Queiróz, in its final edition from 1880, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The author’s name is nowadays more commonly spelled de Queirós, but in her introduction Costa calls him simply Eça (as one would Leonardo), so that avoids any orthographic heartache.
I’m letting this project be dictated, where possible, by the availability of books in the library, and this happened to be the only Portuguese book we have in translation (titles from e.g. Brazil and Mozambique excepted). It wasn’t a wholly unknown quantity to me, though. I haven’t seen it, but I was at least aware of the 2003 film adaptation, sexed up (not that the book needs much sexing up) and moved to modern-day Mexico and starring my not very secret crush Gael García Bernal.
A bit about Eça (1845-1900). One of the great Portuguese realist writers. Lived in the UK for much of his adult life, working for the Portuguese consular service in Newcastle and then Bristol. A fan of Dickens, the introduction notes, though I thought this book was closer in spirit to Zola or Flaubert, with its simmering sexuality. Zola, quoted on the back cover: ‘Queiróz is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert.’ I raised an eyebrow.
The book opens explosively with the death from apoplexy of the priest José Miguéis. (He’s in good company – there are three deaths from apoplexy in the first 100 pages; clearly the way to go in nineteenth-century Portugal.) The fat, bloated carcass of José Miguéis seems symbolic of the Catholic Church in Portugal – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Drafted into his place is young Amaro Vieira, not long out of the seminary.
The corruption and hypocrisy rooted deep within the church in the town of Leiria, where the book is set, are evident from the start. Canon Dias arranges for Amaro to lodge in the household of his own mistress, São Joaneira, so that she can have some extra money from his rent. This forces Amaro together with São Joaneira’s daughter Amélia, and after a bit of pussy-footing (not a euphemism) they embark on their own illicit affair. Ah! you think, this is the crime of Father Amaro. Well, it’s one of them, but really there are so many to choose from.
This thing about Dickens. The introduction plays up the similarity between the two writers, and Eça’s book is undoubtedly full of characters who, while not in most cases as vividly drawn and described as Dickens’ finest comic creations, are larger than life. For a book full of anger and bitterness (Amaro is aptly named), it has its fair share of comedy. The scene where the ladies of Leiria inspect Amaro’s room while he’s out and admire his underwear is memorable, as is this forensic pencil sketch:
Dona Maria da Assunção had dressed in her Sunday black silk; she was wearing a reddish-blonde wig covered in ornamental black lace; her bony, mittened hands, which lay solemnly on her lap, glittered with rings; a thick gold chain made of filigree hung from the brooch at her neck down to her waist. She was sitting very stiff and erect, her head slightly tilted, her gold-rimmed spectacles perched on her rather equine nose; she had a large, hairy mole on her chin, and whenever she spoke of religious feelings or of miracles she would make an odd movement with her neck and then open her mouth in a silent smile that revealed enormous, greenish teeth, like wedges hammered into her gums. She was a wealthy widow and suffered from chronic catarrh.
(Dona Maria da Assunção lives surrounded by religious tat, the crowning glory of which is a reliquary containing a piece of Christ’s nappy.)
Eça, writes Costa, disliked Dickens’ sentimentality. I think I’d have worked that out by myself: he’s brutal. Dickens gets most maudlin when he’s engaged in social commentary, perhaps. (To take the first example that came to mind, that of Dick, one of the workhouse boys in Oliver Twist: ‘I heard the doctor tell them I was dying … I know the doctor must be right, Oliver, because I dream so much of Heaven, and Angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake.’) Eça’s way of approaching the problems of society is blunter. With the honourable exception of Father Ferrão, who becomes Amélia’s confessor – though even his motives can sometimes be read as sinister – the priests are boorish, self-satisfied and corrupt, wedded to the bed and the bottle.
The sacristan stood behind him, arms folded, slowly stroking his thick, neatly trimmed beard and casting sideways glances at Casimira França, the cathedral carpenter’s devout wife, whom he had had his eye on since Easter.
One of the political points Eça makes, rather well, is the folly whereby men (boys, really) enter the priesthood at an age when they have no vocation and little self-knowledge, as is the case with Amaro. Surrounded by fornicating priests, it’s hardly a surprise that the temptation to follow their example is too strong for him, or that, when faced with the prospect of a love rival, he spins out of control.
Then he tried to get a grip on himself and all his faculties and to apply them to finding the best way to have his revenge. And then the old despair returned that he was not living in the times of the Inquisition and could not therefore pack them off to prison on some accusation of irreligion or black magic. Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then. But now, with the liberals in power, he was forced to watch as that wretched clerk earning six vinténs a day made off with the girl, whilst he, an educated priest, who might become a bishop or even Pope, had to bow his shoulders and ponder his grief alone. If God’s curses had any value, then let them be cursed. He hoped to see them overrun with children, with no bread in the cupboard, their last blanket pawned, gaunt with hunger, cursing each other – then he would laugh, oh, how he would laugh!
Such bitterness, such self-pity. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel, for me, was the emotional immaturity of Amaro and Amélia, each so quick to think the worst of the other when (as happens occasionally) one ceases communication with the other, both of them so unversed in human psychology. When, halfway through the book, Amaro finally gets what he wants, i.e. Amélia, he becomes not more level-headed, but a tyrant, forbidding her from reading novels and poetry, suspecting her of infidelity at the least provocation. It invites the question, can we forgive Amaro? Can we pity him, even? To what extent is his cruelty a product of the repressiveness of his situation? What is the point at which we have to assume responsibility for our actions? By the end, I found myself wishing he had suffered more, if anything.
At Chapter 22, the unexpected happens: a shopping list between pages 390 and 391.
I don’t suppose I will ever know what happened to this student’s nails.
The story of Amaro and Amélia, though, is resolved. It’s a resolution that feels right, though dully predictable. I don’t think predictability is necessarily a bad thing, but goodness Eça likes his signposting. When, in an earlyish episode, Amélia’s childhood friend Joaninha is publicly dishonoured, having fallen from grace following an affair with a priest, it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to read it as a prefiguration of what is to come. With all the evidence that destruction is on the way, why does neither Amélia nor Amaro come clean? That’s another symptom of society’s corruption, I suppose, that it compels you to conceal the truth.
Anyway, if you like a mix of self-righteous satire and torrid melodrama, this is your book. I liked it. It’s a page-turner.