One book about sainthood followed by a neighbor, since I was reading José Maria Eça de Queirós’s Saint Christopher (pub. 1912, written in the 1890s) while writing about La Regenta. The latter is a novel, an attempt to look at the meaning of sainthood in a world resembling the real one. Saint Christopher is an out and out hagiography.
You may remember – I did – Eça as the author of the savagely anti-clerical The Crime of Padre Amaro and The Relic, an attack on religioushypocrisy. Or a defense of religious hypocrisy. The Relic features a long scene in which the narrator, an ordinary fellow of the 19th century, witnesses or hallucinates the Passion of Christ, so Saint Christopher has a predecessor in Eça’s work. But, still, I do not really understand why he was writing straightforward saints’ lives. Maybe it is not so straightforward.
The setting is a vague, fantastic medieval Europe. The saint is a monster, a grotesque, worst at his birth:
Dark, all covered by rough, wrinkled skin, with an empty, shapeless face where the features were formed by vague, lumpy protuberances, the enormous hands clasped over his fuzzy belly, twisted legs that ended in two sharp feet, like those of a faun, all together he had the appearance of a dark root, the root of a strange tree, still dark from the dark earth out of which it had been torn. And not a cry. (p. 14)
Christopher gradually becomes more human-like than this, but Eça frequently compare him to animals, plants, and even rocks, and not just physically but mentally. A saint in this world is not quite human.
Super-strong – another character in the 19th century superhero tradition – and with an endless capacity both for suffering and for charity, Christopher wanders through a series of picaresque adventures, developing his understanding of good and evil. He serves a boy prince, is exhibited in a circus, becomes a hermit, a nurse in a plague-ridden city, and the leader of a peasant revolt. His empathy only grows:
Later on, and from out of the depths of his simple and dense soul, there came little by little to be born the idea that the tree also suffered, as did the little flowers in the fields. And from that time on, Christopher never again carved a shepherd’s crook from out of a tree trunk. From that time on, all branches that were dry, broken, and lying on the ground pained him and made him suffer. (130)
Soon his sympathy is extended to rocks:
And many times, with his vast body, he provided shade for the rocks; and during these periods of cold, his hands, working like long spade, would free these same rocks and stones from the icy frigidity that imprisoned them.
A number of episodes at the end of the book, including this one and the most famous one, where he carries the infant Christ across a river – in this telling, the crossing is Christopher’s death – achieve a real sublimity. Perhaps that is sufficient explanation of Eça’s purpose.
If you are thinking, hey, doesn’t this sound a lot like Flaubert – it does! You are perceptive and thoughtful. Let’s turn to Flaubert tomorrow. I don’t understand Flaubert’s saints, either.
The translation is by Gregory Rabassa and Earl E. Fitz, and was published by Tagus Press just last year.