Review: The Crime of Father Amaro by José Maria de Eça de Queirós

The Crime of Father Amaro Book Cover The Crime of Father Amaro  [1875/1962] – ★★★★★

Portuguese novelist José Maria Eça de Queirós has been compared to Russian Leo Tolstoy and French Honoré Balzac, and for a good reason – his debut (without a collaboration) book The Crime of Father Amaro (translated by Nan Flanagan in 1962) is a multi-faceted novel of great ambition and skill. In it, he tells of events taking place in a small cathedral town of Leiria, north of Lisbon. Father Amaro, a handsome young priest arrives to Leiria to take the position of a parish priest and soon falls under the spell of the most beautiful girl in town – good-natured Amelia, who lives with her strict and apparently religious mother Joanneira in the heart of the city. Amaro is an honourable guest and a lodger in the comfortable house of Amelia and Joanneira, and he soon finds that his duties of a priest clash with his physical desires, and, in particular, with his burning romantic passion for Amelia. Amaro is also caught up in the town’s complex politics, in a clash between the clergy of the town and the governmental powers. The forces within Amaro, as well as from outside of his influence, conspire to lead the young parish priest to making some unprecedented choices. This beautifully-written novel may start as one’s usual tale of sympathetic and doomed love, but – and here the readers will be in for a surprise – it will finish as a more complex story that subverts all expectations. If Italy has Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed [1827], Portugal can pride itself on having José Maria Eça de Queirós’s The Crime of Father Amaro; Eça de Queirós is a brave author who was not afraid to twist common literary tropes and introduce his own, unique versions of main characters, producing an unputdownable tale of one passionate love’s consequences, while also offering an insightful satire on the ways of a provincial town.

It is best to know as little as possible about the plot to enjoy this novel to the fullest. The novel starts as a romance and there is one forbidden love – one of the most popular tropes in fiction – let’s recall William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence [1920] or Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate [1989]. At the centre is one sympathetic young priest who meets a beautiful maiden Amelia. Everything is set for a perfect storm to come, and José Maria Eça de Queirós is an author who can really set the scene since we are truly transported when reading to one provincial town with its eccentric characters, natural beauty and religious devotion. The comfortable position of Father Amaro in town would have been even more pleasurable for him if he were not instantly in love with Amelia, the most desirable girl in the village. Amelia responds to Father Amaro kindly and we see the growing platonic love, all the more sympathetic for it looking so genuine, but wrong and forbidden to both. We also get to know more about the main characters at this stage. For example, we learn that Father Amaro is handsome, but can be rather impulsive too, questioning his religious canons in secret. José Maria Eça de Queirós is also that one author who can write about love, about falling in love and about love sorrows and intrigues with a certain admirable skill and understanding, portraying sexual tension without being explicit. There are such passages as “his face was constantly before her eyes, he was always present in her dreams. And with absence the flame of her love burnt stronger and higher, like a piece of lighted wood which one draws apart from the others” [Eça de Queirós, 1875/1962: 81] and “this passion continued enveloping her in an atmosphere from which she could not escape. If she ran away from it, it followed her, coiled itself round her and forced her to dwell within it….” [Eça de Queirós, 1875/1962: 82]. Early repressed desires of the priest are also portrayed – “he felt the same rebellion of nature taking place in the other boys around him: the studies, the fasts, the penances could subdue their bodies, could give them mechanical habits, but inwardly their desires moved silently like a cradle of serpents” [Eça de Queirós, 1875/1962: 26].

At first, The Crime of Father Amaro is “slow-moving”, but it gains much pace in the middle, and the final part is packed with some unexpected “action”. As stated above, the first part is a tale of two lovers and the consequence of their possible union. It is naturally forbidden for Father Amaro to fall in love and marry anyone. For Amelia, the situation is different. She is a girl already in her twenties and having a suitor – a local government clerk named João Eduardo. When Father Amaro makes his intentions known to Amelia, there is this thrill going on of the forbidden passion, and misunderstandings arise between the two lovers. Further on in the novel, we learn that “someone” published a newspaper article denouncing the town’s clergy, of which Amaro is already a part, and the gap between the lovers widens at this pint – only for the tables to turn again. Jealousy, envy and selfishness precipitate the events from then on, leading to unexpected results.

The genius of the book is that the author leads us first on one path in terms of drama, but we soon realise that the drama lies in another, less obvious place. Slander and pressure to conform to social and religious norms are a child’s play compared to what we are shown later in the novel. There are probably already hints about this at the very start – in the contrast which is drawn between Amelia and Amaro on the one hand, and other, secondary characters, on the other hand. If The Crime of Father Amaro were not a kind of a satire, it will even be convenient to blame the author for drawing his secondary characters so caricaturishly. In fact, nearly all of the secondary characters are presented in a bad light, even Amelia’s mother – Seihora Joanneira  –  has her own “carnal” weaknesses (though she always has a wise thing to say –  “no one really knows the value of good health except those who have lost it”, she noted at one point) [Eça de Queirós, 1875/1962: 18]. Amelia’s suitor, João Eduardo, is also presented as a weak, ugly and good-for-nothing boy. However, since this novel is satirical, we also soon learn that what at first appears straightforward and obvious, hides something more complex, and the author has a broader plan for his characters. Even the author’s language changes when he refers to some of his characters to signal him distancing himself from them as the story progresses, for example, from a personal to a more formal naming. Even the title of the novel itself – The Crime (or Sin) of Father Amaro may be interpreted as being slightly misleading since “the sin” in the title may not actually be the one the reader would think of initially. 

The Crime of Father Amaro was a controversial upon its release novel, which should now have a wider readership. With its subversive story, vivid characterisations and beautiful language, this tale of inverted principles and hidden evils, of limits and illusions of love, and of the extent of human selfishness and manipulation, is a true European classic.

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