Crime Of Father Amaro Pa

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  • Edition: 00
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2003-05-17
  • Publisher: NEW DIRECT
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Eça de Queirós''s novel The Crime of Father Amaro is a lurid satire of clerical corruption in a town in Portugal (Leira) during the period before and after the 1871 Paris Commune. At the start, a priest physically explodes after a fish supper while guests at a birthday celebration are "wildly dancing a polka." Young Father Amaro (whose name means "bitter" in Portuguese) arrives in Leira and soon lusts after'”and is lusted after by'”budding Amelia, dewy-lipped, devout daughter of Sao Joaneira who has taken in Father Amaro as a lodger. What ensues is a secret love affair amidst a host of compelling minor characters: Canon Dias, glutton and Sao Joaneira's lover; Dona Maria da Assuncao, a wealthy widow with a roomful of religious images, agog at any hint of sex; Joao Eduardo, repressed atheist, free-thinker and suitor to Amelia; Father Brito, "the strongest and most stupid priest in the diocese;" the administrator of the municipal council who spies at a neighbor's wife through binoculars for hours every day. Eça's incisive critique flies like a shattering mirror, jabbing everything from the hypocrisy of a rich and powerful Church, to the provincialism of men and women in Portuguese society of the time, to the ineptness of politics or science as antidotes to the town's ills. What lurks within Eça's narrative is a religion of tolerance, wisdom, and equality nearly forgotten. Margaret Jull Costa has rendered an exquisite translation and provides an informative introduction to a story that truly spans all ages.



It was Easter Sunday when the people of Leiria learned that the parish priest, José Miguéis, had died of apoplexy in the early hours of the morning. The priest was a large, red-faced man, known amongst the other clergy of the diocese as `the glutton of all gluttons'. Remarkable tales were told of his voracious appetite. Carlos, the apothecary, loathed him, and whenever he saw the priest leaving the house after a post-prandial nap, face all flushed and body replete, he would say: `There goes the boa constrictor, off to digest his lunch. One day he'll explode!' And explode he did, after a fish supper, just when Senhor Godinho, who lived opposite, was celebrating his birthday, and his guests were wildly dancing a polka. No one regretted his death, and there were few people at his funeral. Generally speaking, he was not greatly respected. He was basically a peasant with the manners and thick wrists of a farm labourer; he had hairs sprouting from his ears and was brusque, gravel-voiced and coarsely spoken. The devout ladies had never taken to him: he used to belch while hearing confession and, having always lived in village parishes or in the mountains, was oblivious to certain finer points of religious devotion. He thus immediately lost nearly all his female confessants, who went instead to the unctuous Father Gusmão, who always knew the right thing to say. And when the pious ladies who did remain faithful came to José Miguéis with talk of scruples and visions, he would scandalise them by grunting: `Nonsense, Senhora! Pray to God for some common sense and a bit more grey matter.' He found their keenness on fasting particularly irritating. `Why there's nothing wrong with eating and drinking, woman,' he would roar, `nothing wrong at all!' He was a staunch supporter of Prince Miguel, and thus the views of the liberal parties and of their newspapers filled him with irrational choler. `Damn them!' he would exclaim, brandishing his vast red umbrella. Latterly, he had grown more sedentary and lived entirely alone apart from an old maidservant and a dog called Joli. His only friend was the precentor, Valadares, who was in charge of running the diocese at the time because, for the last two years, the Bishop, Dom Joaquim, had been resting at his estate in Alto Minho, a martyr to his rheumatism. The priest had a great deal of respect for the precentor, an austere man with a large nose and poor eyesight, who was a great admirer of Ovid and who pursed his lips when he talked and liked to pepper his conversation with mythological allusions. The precentor was fond of the priest. He used to call him Friar Hercules. `"Hercules" because he's strong,' he explained, smiling, `and "Friar" because he's a glutton.' At the priest's funeral, the precentor himself sprinkled holy water over the grave and, since he had been in the habit of offering the priest a daily pinch of snuff from his gold snuffbox, he muttered to the other canons as he threw the first ritual handful of earth onto the coffin: `That's the last pinch he's getting from me!' The whole chapter of canons laughed uproariously at the diocesan governor's joke; Canon Campos repeated it that same night while taking tea at the house of Novais, the local deputy, where it was greeted with delighted laughter, and everyone praised the precentor's many virtues and remarked respectfully that `the precentor really was most terribly witty'. Days after the funeral, the priest's dog Joli turned up, wandering across the square. The maid had been taken to hospital with a fever, the house was all shut up, and the dog, abandoned, trailed its hunger from door to door. It was a small, very fat mongrel, that bore a faint resemblance to the priest. Accustomed to being around cassocks and desperate for a master, as soon as it saw a priest it would go whimpering after him. But no one wanted poor Joli; they would drive him away with the tips of their umbrellas, and the dog, like a spurned suitor, would howl all night in the streets. One morning, the dog was found dead outside the poorhouse; the dung wagon carried it off and, when the dog was no longer to be seen in the square, the priest José Miguéis was finally forgotten. Two months later, the people of Leiria learned that a new parish priest had been appointed. Apparently, he was a very young man, just out of the seminary. His name was Amaro Vieira. His appointment was put down to political influence, and the local newspaper, The District Voice , which supported the opposition, wrote bitterly of Golgotha, of `favouritism at court' and of `the reactionary clergy'. Some priests were quite shocked by the article and it was spoken of in resentful terms in the presence of the precentor. `Oh, there's certainly been some favouritism, and he does have sponsors,' said the precentor. `The person who wrote to me confirming the appointment was Brito Correia. (Brito Correia was then Minister of Justice.) `He even says in the letter that the priest is a handsome, strapping lad. So it would seem,' he added with a smug smile, `that "Friar Hercules" will perhaps be succeeded by "Friar Apollo".' Only one person in Leiria, Canon Dias, had actually met the new priest, for the Canon had taught him Ethics in his first years at the seminary. At that time, said the Canon, the priest had been a shy, spindly, pimply youth. `I can see him now in his threadbare cassock and looking for all the world as if he were suffering from worms! But he was a good lad and bright too.' Canon Dias was a well-known figure in Leiria. He had grown fat of late, his prominent belly filling his cassock; and his grizzled hair, heavy eye bags and thick lips brought to mind tales of lascivious, gluttonous friars. Old Patrício, who had a shop in the square, was an arch liberal and would growl like a guard dog whenever he walked past a priest, and sometimes, when he saw the plump Canon crossing the square after lunch, leaning his weight on his umbrella, he would snarl: `The old rogue's the image of João VI!' The Canon lived alone with his older sister, Senhora Josefa Dias, and a maid, who was an equally familiar sight in the streets of Leiria, shuffling along in her carpet slippers, with her dyed black shawl drawn tight around her. Canon Dias was said to be rich; he owned rented properties near Leiria, gave turkey suppers and had some fine wine in his cellar. However, the main fact about him - much commented on and gossiped over - was his longstanding friendship with Senhora Augusta Caminha, whom everyone called São Joaneira, because she came from São João da Foz. São Joaneira lived in Rua da Misericórdia and took in lodgers. She had a daughter, Amélia, a girl of twenty-three, pretty, healthy and much sought-after. Canon Dias had shown himself to be extremely pleased with the appointment of Amaro Vieira. In the apothecary's shop, in the square and in the cathedral sacristy, he praised Amaro's application as a seminarian, as well as his prudence, his obedience and even his voice: `It's a joy to listen to! Exactly what one needs for putting a bit of feeling into Holy Week sermons.' He confidently predicted a golden future, doubtless a canonry, possibly even the glory of a bishopric! And one day, with great satisfaction, he showed the coadjutor of the cathedral - a silent, servile creature - a letter he had received from Amaro Vieira in Lisbon. It was on an evening in August, and they were strolling together over the bridge. The new road to Figueira was under construction at the time; the old wooden bridge over the Lis had been destroyed and now everyone crossed by the much-vaunted new bridge, Ponte Nova, with its two broad stone arches, strong and stout. Work, however, had been suspended - something to do with the illegal expropriation of land. One could still see the muddy parish road which the new road was supposed to improve upon and incorporate; the ground was covered in layers of ballast, and the heavy stone rollers used to compact and smooth the macadam surface lay half-buried in the black, rain-drenched earth. The new bridge was surrounded by tranquil open countryside. The river rose amongst low, rounded hills clothed in the dark green of new pine trees; further off, amongst the thick woods, were the small farms that lend these melancholy places a touch of lively humanity, with their bright whitewashed walls shining in the sun, with the smoke from their chimneys growing blue in the clear, clean air. Downstream, where the river flowed through low-lying fields and between banks lined with pale willows, the broad, fertile plain of Leiria, sunlit and well-watered, extended as far as the sandy beaches of the coast. From the bridge, one could see little of the city - part of the cathedral with its heavy, Jesuitical stonework, a corner of the cemetery wall overgrown with nettles, and the sharp, black tips of the cypress trees; the rest was concealed by the rugged hill bristling with rough vegetation on which stood the crumbling castle ruins, redolent of the past and surrounded at evening by the circling flight of owls. At the foot of the bridge, the ground slopes down to an avenue that runs alongside the river for a short way. It is a secluded place, full of ancient trees. It is called the Alameda Velha. There, strolling slowly along, talking quietly, the Canon was discussing Amaro Vieira's letter with the coadjutor and telling him about an idea that the letter had given him, an idea which struck him as `brilliant, absolutely brilliant'. Amaro had asked him, with some urgency, to arrange a rented house for him to live in, cheap, well-situated and, if possible, furnished; he spoke, more to the point, of renting rooms in a respectable guesthouse. `As you can see, dear teacher,' Amaro wrote, `that is what would suit me best; I do not, of course, require anything luxurious, a bedroom and a small sitting room would be perfectly adequate. What matters is that the house should be respectable, quiet and central, with a kind landlady who does not charge the earth; I leave all this to your discretion and good sense, and I assure you that these favours will not fall on barren ground. The landlady must, above all, be quiet and well-bred.' `Now my idea, friend Mendes, is this: to put him up at São Joaneira's house!' said the Canon gleefully. `Isn't that a wonderful idea?' `Splendid!' said the coadjutor in his servile tones. `She's got the bedroom downstairs, with a sitting room right next door and another bedroom which he could use as a study. It's nicely furnished, with good bedlinen ...' `Oh, excellent linen,' said the coadjutor respectfully. The Canon went on: `It would be a good opportunity for São Joaneira; she could easily charge six tostões a day for rooms, bedlinen, meals and a maid. And she will have the honour of having the parish priest right there in her house.' `It's Amélia I'm not sure about,' remarked the coadjutor timidly. `People might talk. She's still a very young woman ... and they say the new priest is also very young. You know how tongues around here wag ...' The Canon stopped walking. `Nonsense! Father Joaquim lives under the same roof as his mother's goddaughter, doesn't he? And Canon Pedroso lives with his sister-in-law and one of his sister-in-law's sisters, a girl of nineteen. Now really ...' `All I meant was ...' began the coadjutor. `No, I see no problem whatsoever. São Joaneira occasionally rents out rooms anyway, so it's almost like a guesthouse already. Even the secretary-general stayed there for a few months!' `But a clergyman ...' suggested the coadjutor. `What further guarantee could one need, Senhor Mendes!' exclaimed the Canon. Then, stopping again and speaking in a confidential tone: `And you see it suits me very well, Mendes. It suits me down to the ground, my friend.' There was a brief silence. Lowering his voice, the coadjutor said: `Yes, you are very good to São Joaneira.' `I do what I can, my dear friend, I do what I can,' said the Canon. And in a tender, warmly paternal voice, he added: `And she deserves it too. She's kindness itself, my friend.' He stopped and rolled his eyes. `You know, if I'm not at her house at nine o'clock in the morning sharp, she starts to get quite agitated. "My dear child," I say to her, "there's no reason to get so upset." But that's the way she is. When I was ill with the colic last year, she actually lost weight, Senhor Mendes! And she's so considerate. When it's time to kill the pig, the best cuts are always for the "holy father", that's what she calls me.' His eyes shone and he spoke with almost drooling contentment. `Ah, Mendes,' he added, `she's a wonderful woman!' `And very pretty too,' said the coadjutor respectfully. `Oh, yes,' exclaimed the Canon, stopping again. `She's certainly well-preserved, because she's no spring chicken, you know, but she hasn't got a single grey hair on her head, not a one! And her complexion ...' Then more quietly and with a greedy smile: `And this part here, Mendes,' indicating the area of the throat beneath the chin by slowly stroking it with his plump hand: `Perfection itself!` And she keeps everything in the house spotless! And so thoughtful! Not a day passes without her sending me some present, a little jar of jam, a bowl of creamed rice or some delicious black pudding from Arouca! Yesterday she sent me an apple tart. You should have seen it! The apples were so smooth and creamy! Even my sister Josefa said: "It's so delicious you would think she'd cooked the apples in holy water!"' Then placing one hand on his heart: `It's that kind of thing that touches you right here, Mendes. I know I shouldn't talk like that, but it's true.' The coadjutor listened in envious silence. `I'm perfectly well aware,' said the Canon, stopping again and weighing each word. `I'm perfectly well aware of the rumours flying around ... But it's a complete and utter calumny! I just happen to be very fond of the family. I was when her husband was alive. You know that, Mendes.' The coadjutor nodded. `São Joaneira is a respectable woman, Mendes!' exclaimed the Canon, striking the ground with the point of his umbrella. `A respectable woman!' `The work of poisonous tongues, sir,' said the coadjutor mournfully. And after a silence, he added softly: `But it must all work out very expensive for you.' `Exactly, my friend. Since the secretary-general left, the poor woman has had her house empty, and I've had to help her out.' `She has got that small farm,' commented the coadjutor. `A mere strip of land, my dear fellow, a mere strip. And then there are taxes to be paid and labourers' wages. That's why the new priest is such a godsend.


Excerpted from the Crime of Father Amaro by EÇA DE QUEIRÓS Copyright © 2003 by New Directions Publishing Corporation
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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