Many readers, although people of boundless curiosity, non-insular and anti-parochial, true citizens of the world, might be unsure if The Crime of Father Amaro, a novel about the misdeeds of mid-19th century Portuguese priests, has any continuing interest. The Catholic priesthood is now, just to pick one of the book’s sticky points, entirely voluntary and vocational. Fair point.
The abuse of power by the novel’s priests is just a specific example of a universal theme, though, and Eça de Queirós is a true artist, meaning that the only path to the large is through the small. An abuse of power can be reformed, but we need a novelist like Eça to see how it works.
I'm in the middle of the novel. Father Amaro and Amélia are in love but restraining themselves, and Amélia’s now-former fiancé is behaving, completely understandably, like a jackass, culminating in a pathetically ineffectual physical attack on the priest. A group of priests and devout ladies gather every evening at the house of Amélia’s mother, so here they are together after the attack. Father Amaro has turned the other cheek, and why not, since he is the victor:
Such saintliness drove the women wild. What an angel! They gazed on him adoringly, their hands almost raised in prayer. His presence, like that of a St Vincent de Paul, exuding charity, gave the room a chapel-like sweetness… (264)
So far, so satirical. Just a little vicious towards these women, fools, admittedly. But they are not Eça’s true targets. The most combative of the priests declares the fiancé has been automatically excommunicated and that having in the house any of the excommunicant’s possessions is a threat to the soul, for example, this magazine, and that cigarette case, and this stray glove:
‘We must destroy them!’ exclaimed Dona Maria da Assunção. ‘We must burn them, burn them!’
The room echoed now with the shrill cries of the women, in the grip of a holy fury. (268)
Eça and I are still mocking the superstitious biddies, it seems, but here is the punchline:
The clamouring women raced into the kitchen. Even São Joaneira followed them, as a good hostess, to watch over the bonfire.
Left alone, the three priests looked at each other and laughed.
‘Women are the very devil,’ said the Canon philosophically.
‘No, Father,’ said Natário, growing suddenly serious. ‘I’m laughing because although, seen from outside, it may look ridiculous, the sentiment behind it is good. It proves their true devotion to the priesthood, their horror of impiety. And that, after all, is an admirable sentiment.’
‘Oh, admirable,’ agreed Amaro, equally seriously. (269)
All of this nonsense is just an arbitrary demonstration of power, a prank. Eça, in scenes like this, shows how the older priests corrupt the younger, not by openly advocating for vice, but for their own power and privilege. Poor Amélia’s not going to have a chance against Amaro.
Tomorrow I think I will move to the end, to the two ends, of the novel.