The Crime of Father Amaro, published in 1876 takes as its subject the forbidden love affair between a young priest and a beautiful local girl, and is positively raunchy. Never mind Emma Bovary waving her hand out of the carriage as it bumps over the cobblestones of Rouen, there’s nothing so oblique in Eça de Queiros’s realist novel. Forget, as well, Richard Chamberlain’s tortured priest in The Thorn Birds. Father Amaro grabs greedily at his sins, agreeing in a moment of supreme irony with his mentor, Canon Dias, that it is ‘the one thing in life worth living for.’ No, this is a novel about what happens when power and authority have reached a scandalous level of corruption, but the bite of satire is tempered by a genuine compassion for the weakness and vulnerability of humankind, particularly when compromised by impossible choices between nature and duty.
Amaro Vieira has been destined from an early age for the priesthood. When his parents, both servants, die young, Amaro’s upbringing is taken over by the Marqueza for whom they worked. Liking Amaro’s pretty face, she wants to do the best for him she can, and sets aside money so that he can attend the seminary. There is no sense of vocation, then, to Amaro’s career, and for all its compensations in terms of respect and authority, the demands of celibacy placed upon him are not really ones he has chosen. Amaro has a romantic attachment to the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic church, but is entirely lacking in spirituality. As a handsome, new face in the town of Leiria, however, he makes quite a sensation. His friend and mentor, Canon Dias, finds him lodgings in the comfortable house of Senhora Joanneira, and Amaro is fussed over by an assembly of pious, elderly ladies with faintly hysterical religious scruples and concerns. Senhora Joanneira’s lovely daughter, Amelia, naturally stands out against this backdrop, and the two are instantly attracted to one another. The only fly in the ointment being Amelia’s suitor, João Eduardo, who is a mild-mannered clerk.
Unexpected competition from the clergy is enough to turn João Eduardo apoplectic with rage, however, and he seeks vengeance by publishing a damning account of corruption amongst the local priests. He has plenty of material to work with; the priests are a lazy, gluttonous, ill-tempered lot, intent on finding ways to evade the responsibilities and restraints of their faith. This doesn’t prevent them being outraged when the article is published in the paper, and a witch-hunt is undertaken to identify the perpetrator of this crime. In consequence, Amelia, distressed by the actions of her fiancé, is carried along on the tide of sympathetic approbation for Amaro, and into his waiting arms.
The novel describes an inevitable collision between the weaknesses of human nature and the excessive status of the Catholic church, particularly in a people who are hot-blooded, easily angered, self-centred and bored in the provinces. It’s the church that gets the most comprehensive critique, however, as Amaro’s sins are by no means unusual amongst the clergy of the era. He is simply a not terribly bright young man, using all means at his disposal to assuage the fierce sexual urges of youth. Amelia’s fall is predestined by the obedience she is bound to show towards a priest, who combines the authority of a god with the glamour of celebrity. There are a number of anti-clerical opinions voiced across one the novel, one of which is given by the good doctor, as he describes Amelia’s state of compliance:
‘The good Catholic, such as your little girl, doesn’t belong to herself; she has no judgement, no wishes, no free will, nor individual feeling; her priest thinks, wishes, determines, feels for her. Her only work in this world, which is at the same time her only right and her only task, is to accept this direction; accept it without discussion; obey it, no matter what its demands; if it is against her ideas, she must think her ideas are false; if her love is wounded she must think that it is her love at fault.’
The submission of the Catholic woman to the demands of the priest is absolute. This is shown quite comically in the novel by the superstitious idiocy preached to them and by them. Amaro’s greatest talent is his ability to distort doctrine in order to manipulate others into doing what he wants, but he has a ready audience in the women of Leiria, who will believe just about anything, out of a potent terror of hellfire and damnation. It’s not until the novel is in its dying stages that de Queiros introduces a properly religious man, and the difference between his approach and that of the other priests is refreshing. Not for him the ferocious, vengeful God; his is full of love and compassion. Nor does he see religion as a straitjacket of rules and regulations that must be obeyed; instead he equates genuine spirituality with freedom, and a tender-hearted virtue that is inherently moral.
But this is the nineteenth century, and the rule of narrative, never mind the rule of Catholicism, is that women who sin must suffer. Novels have embedded superstitions of their own, in the way that the fate of the protagonists is often prefigured by textual omens and warnings. As the lovers get themselves ever deeper into trouble, they think up all sorts of ways out of trouble, only to see their plans crumble and fail. Will there be a last-minute reprieve? Well, I’m obviously not about to tell you, although I am longing to discuss the ending with someone! I read this book for the Amateur Reader’s Portuguese Literature Challenge, so I hope very much there’ll be a chance to discuss it in full on his site. In the meantime, this is a worthy equal to the likes of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, sharp-tongued and bittersweet but with a strong undercurrent of tenderness for the foibles of humanity.
Do also read Richard’s wonderful account of the novel.