Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Grand Tour #1 – Portugal. The Crime of Father Amaro / Eça de Queiróz

January 14, 2017

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.

Shakespeare, pastries and holy water

April 23, 2016

There’s John Falstaff, a comical fellow
And that envious Moor called Othello
But the star of the folio
Is surely Malvolio
In cross-gartered stockings of yellow

The above is my humble contribution to mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s shuffling off of his brief candle.

Relatedly, this is what I recall of the dream I had last Sunday night:

I met J at an unspecified event. She was sitting in some communal room, like the Green Room at Gonville and Caius but a bit swisher. She had a bowl of water and was aspersing people. I said ‘Asperges me hyssopo’ and she chucked a bit of water at me.

Then we had a good-natured chat about Shakespeare in which I surprised myself at my knowledge of the plays. I certainly mentioned Florizel and Perdita, and we discussed Twelfth Night, which I said was my favourite. I suppose knowledge grows by accretion without one realising it.

I took a pastry at her prompting, which appeared to be a loosely coiled croissant, then walked with her as I ate. It uncoiled into a kind of baguette, much more substantial than it had seemed, the end dragging on the ground, the other still in my mouth. I was glad to see her looking so well.


The Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol

December 19, 2015

Happy Christmas to you all.

Here’s me playing Grainger’s piano arrangement of The Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol yesterday. Grainger notes at the head of his score:

The tune was noted by Miss Lucy E. Broadwood at Lyne, near Horsham (Sussex), in 1880 and 1881 from the singing of Christmas Mummers called “Tipteers” or “Tipteerers” during their play of “St. George, the Turk, and the seven champions of Christendom.”

See you the other side of 25 December!

Edinburgh 2015

August 24, 2015

I spent the weekend in Edinburgh. When Gareth goes to Edinburgh in Festival Season, he does things properly. So between Friday night and Sunday afternoon I managed to fit in ten shows, a visit to the National Gallery, and even sang a Piskie Eucharist on Sunday morning.

The first show I saw was also one of the best, Canadian stand-up Mae Martin’s Us, in which she talks about labels, and especially the erasure of bisexuality, the assumption that because a woman dates a woman, say, she must be a lesbian. It’s a very funny show, and I smiled and laughed a lot, but the abiding memory is of a feeling of tremendous good will in the room. When you watch Mae Martin perform, you fall in love with her. (I think I was most of the way there already, to be honest.) There were two or three times when she made points that felt really important to me, and some discussion towards the end of homophobic abuse and misgendering that would have been more painful if not for her reassuring presence, and I thought, perhaps another performer, a comedian with a more aggressive persona, would have made this into a rallying cry for change; but Mae Martin’s softer approach is effective in its own way. I loved it and will see it again when she brings it to London in a month’s time.

Mae Martin

On Saturday I saw a couple of shows on transgender subjects: firstly, Jo Clifford’s one-woman show The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, a tender, wry monologue told by a transgender Jesus, culminating in communion; and secondly, Trans Scripts, a theatre piece curated by Paul Lucas in which six actors recite testimonies from trans women, American, British and Australian, about their lives and experiences. The more I think about it, the more exceptional Trans Scripts seems. It’s a smart move to include a wide range of people, as it brings home both the individuality of everyone’s experiences and the universality. I keep thinking of Rebecca Root’s Eden, born intersex and assigned male because her father wanted a boy, justifiably bitter at her treatment by the world, by medical professionals, but still clinging to the hope of a reconciliation with her mother. To single out Root is to overlook the other performers, Calpernia Addams, Catherine Fitzgerald, Jay Knowles, Bianca Leigh and Carolyn Michelle Smith, who are flawless. I don’t recall the last time I was so moved at the theatre. At the end I was one of many who stood to applaud. Visit the play’s website here.

Jo Clifford made the point that she was preaching to the choir, that the people who would choose to attend a performance like hers would be those already inclined to be receptive to her show. The same goes for Trans Scripts. It’s frustrating. A piece of theatre as vital and important as Trans Scripts should – must – be seen by an audience of people not yet engaged with the ideas it deals with. It ought to be filmed, or at least put on the radio. It would be an ideal thing to broadcast on Radio 3 or 4 at the weekend. It’s infuriating (if not surprising) that when Clifford’s show was first staged in Glasgow it attracted condemnation from churchmen who would naturally never have dreamed of attending a performance of it so that they could give an informed opinion. Anything to avoid challenging their fucking prejudices. I know people who call themselves Christians and yet would deny trans people their gender. If I had the power to do anything in the world, it would be to compel the uninformed, the unreceptive, the insensitive, to watch these two shows.

Trans Scripts

One joy of the Fringe is that there’s so much going on, and if you have a spare hour here or there you can always find something to do. That’s how I ended up going to Michael Burdett’s show Strange Face – Adventures With a Lost Nick Drake Recording, which I spotted a poster for while I was queuing for Mae Martin. I knew about the project already, as he gave this talk at my friend Victoria’s excellent bookshop a few months ago, but hadn’t seen it myself. Having discovered a hitherto unknown recording of Drake’s ‘Cello Song’, Burdett travelled around the country playing it to people and photographing their reactions. It’s a disarmingly moving hour, well worth seeking out.

Most of what I saw was comedy, though. Gein’s Family Giftshop, so polished and sharp, gifted physically and verbally, and clearly destined for greatness; hot young Alex Edelman, engaging and likeable; and Sheeps, whose new show on the Free Fringe, a series of deliberately blunt satirical sketches, feels somewhat ragged at present but will doubtless be refined into something as dazzling as their previous offerings.

The two most brilliant comedy shows I saw were Alex Horne’s Monsieur Butterfly and Kieran Hodgson’s Lance, both tours de force. Horne’s show was on last year but I couldn’t fit it in; thank goodness I made it second time around. He constructs a wacky Mouse Trap-style contraption on stage, enlisting the help of the audience to assist with e.g. making a flower arrangement, or shooting an arrow through a toilet seat suspended from the ceiling. At the end, if all goes to plan (and it generally doesn’t), he succeeds in catching the squirrel that escaped him six years ago, thereby laying several ghosts to rest. No less exhilarating is Hodgson’s show, in which he plays himself and various other characters (including, briefly and convincingly, Oprah Winfrey) in an exploration of the various ways in which Lance Armstrong’s achievements inspired him as a boy and whether later revelations discredit everything. His writing is pitch-perfect, his performance too. It should win every award it is eligible for. I wish I’d seen his solo show last year, which received similar plaudits.

Kieran Hodgson

Just before hopping on a train heading south, I had time to see Sam and Tom from TV! The exclamation mark feels important, as it’s a very high-energy show, with the ‘Sam and Tomfoolery’ threatening to escalate into blind, ugly violence. Which it does, sort of, though the violence is mainly psychological. The physical violence is better left undiscussed here, and is the catalyst for the show’s finest sequence. There was a depth to Tom’s mania that I hadn’t seen since the time I gave him carpet burns on his back by dragging him around the floor by his feet when he was a little boy. Recommended.