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the crime of father amaro

4 september 2022

Eça de Queirós' Crime of Father Amaro (1880) completes the Cs in the Guardian's list of 1,000 novels I ought to have read. I am making good progress and am inspired to keep going.

The Crime of Father Amaro shares family resemblances with many other big 19th-century fictions. It is perceptibly in the tradition of Balzac, and thus of a certain French tradition that leads to Zola (who admired Eça de Queirós): frank about sexuality, cynical about the possibility of human betterment, darkly humorous.

There are topical elements in The Crime of Father Amaro, but no real big picture, no attempt to capture all the facets and strata of society. I wouldn't call it a "condition of Portugal" novel. Its characters are small-city clergy and the women in their social orbit, plus some journalists and professionals. Only a few background scenes take place in Lisbon. One character muses about emigrating to Brazil but never gets there. References to controversies of the day are sparing, and the most extended one concerns the Paris Commune.

Instead, Eça de Queirós offers a lot of old-fashioned lurid melodrama. The plot is well-focused. Father Amaro, a poor young priest talked into ordination by wealthy patrons, has only the most tepid of vocations; he gets a kind of rush from the Mass itself but has no interest in pastoral life or theology. When he is posted to the city of Leiria, Amaro becomes the protegé of his old teacher, the Canon Dias. The Canon leads a creature-comfort life, pampered by his mistress São Joaneira. São Joaneira has an extra room in her boarding house – and she has a nubile young daughter, Amélia. Amélia is promised to an unimaginative young clerk named João Eduardo, but is hoping for an extremely long engagement, because the clerk doesn't interest her in the least.

You can see where this is headed, even if you didn't read the back of the book. Amélia and Amaro fall in love. They replicate the relationship between her mother and his patron: the Canon eventually learns about the affair, and is in no position to criticize Amaro. It remains less clear whether São Joaneira officially knows about her daughter's doings, but she can't not suspect. In any event, the priests keep the women in better style than they could achieve just running a boarding house, and the men are compensated with non-clerical perks.

At times, Amaro bewails the Church's position on priestly celibacy. One does get a sense that if Amaro and Amélia could simply marry (as they could in a Victorian novel, after some Trollopian triangling with "John Edward"), everything would proceed smoothly and we'd have far less of a plot. On the other hand, would the young couple's love be so impassioned if it weren't forbidden?

João Eduardo, for all his lack of initiative, notices the spark between Amaro and Amélia, and writes an anonymous poison-pen op-ed that shifts the plot into a higher gear. I won't spoil it further except to say that the novel, though it runs 464 pages, is concentrated and compelling. If you are looking for a hefty story to entertain you for a while, in a rueful and smart way, look for The Crime of Father Amaro.

Beyond the usual suspects from Britain, the US, France, and Russia, there is an apparently endless supply of excellent big 19th-century novels from other European nations. Their fame or lack thereof depends on translation and marketing. José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845-1900) has been well served by translator Margaret Jull Costa, in versions kept visible by independent presses like New Directions and Dedalus. I wouldn't say that Eça de Queirós is a household name, because I'd never seen his name till it came up in that Guardian list. But he is just above the horizon of visibility in 21st-century English-language letters.

I have read a couple of literary works in Portuguese and reviewed them here over the years. My university library holds a gorgeous, leather-bound folio edition of the works of Eça de Queirós that it doesn't look like anybody has ever read, but which testifies to the novelist's historical prestige in Portugal. But at the rate at which I can read Portuguese, it would have taken me a couple of years to finish O Crime do Padre Amaro, so I was more than happy to read it in a couple of weeks in Jull Costa's fine translation.

Eça de Queirós. The Crime of Father Amaro. [O crime do Padre Amaro, 1880.] Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 2002. New York: New Directions, 2003. PQ 9261 .E3C713

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