Friday, November 11, 2011

The grass, the graves and the cold mists; the essence of city life - the sublime endings of The Crime of Father Amaro

The ending, or endings, of The Crime of Father Amaro.

Near the middle of the novel, a minor character dies; Amaro is her attending priest.  Eça de Queirós uses the episode to give us a look at the genuine spiritual power of even a bad priest like Amaro.  His delivery of the last rites is a serious and meaningful responsibility, meaningful to the dying and those around her, even if Amaro himself sees the duty only as a burden, and even though he uses the incident to chase women.

The early scene foreshadows two later deaths, one where Amaro fails in his ordinary priestly duties, and another where his failure is considerably worse than ordinary.  Whatever Eça may mock, he takes death seriously enough.

This last death leads to a funeral scene, too, although a curious one, since the author mostly does not show us the funeral – he is using the limited third person for all it is worth.  We follow the funeral procession to a chapel but do not enter it; we instead join a pair of servants who take the opportunity to “wander” into a tavern and gossip.  The chapel door is a threshold Eça does not want to cross, the genuine religious service something he does not want us to see.  It exists outside of this novel.  The servants rejoin the procession for the burial, so we do get to see that.  The scene ends with the point of view leaving the servants, the camera “pulling back”:

Amen,’ came the deep voice of the sacristan and the shrill voice of the choirboy.

Amen,’ said the others in a sighing murmur that was lost amongst the cypresses, the grass, the graves and the cold mists of that sad December day. (461)

This is not Father Amaro’s ending.  We need a few pages more for him.  A “man of state and two men of religion,” Amaro one of them, accidentally meet at the foot of the statue of Camões (see wiki for photo - when visiting Lisbon, you can recreate the scene!), author of The Lusiads, hero of Portuguese culture, representative of empire and glory.  An ironic contrast might be on its way.

‘Well, just look around you!  What peace, what vigour, what prosperity!’

And he made a sweeping gesture that took in the whole of the Largo do Loreto, which, at that hour, at the close of a serene afternoon, contained the essence of city life.  Empty carriages rode slowly by; women in twos tottered past, wearing false hair and high heels and displaying the anaemic pallor of a degenerate race… (470)

More: a hungover nobleman, people sprawling in “idle torpor,” pimps, an ox cart (“the symbol of an antiquated agricultural system dating back centuries”), lottery-peddling urchins.  The laying on, it is thick.  The geography of the square, and the nature of Portugal, is finally summarized as “two gloomy church façades… three pawnshop signs… four taverns.”  It’s a sublimely savage passage, worthy of one of Victor Hugo’s great explosions.  In the last words of the novel, our bad priest and his worse superiors congratulate themselves, under the gaze of their great poet, for the marvelous achievements of their civilization, the very thing that the reader of the novel has spent the previous 470 pages watching them destroy.


  1. EdQ is so good about describing places (I'm hoping to post something about this soon now that you've compelled me to re-read "The Maias" in its entirety). I know that square with the Camões statue - yet how many regrets that I didn't know the roles played by so many Lisbon locations in EdQ's work - aside from the few I could recall from "The Maias" - when I visited...

  2. The strangest thing about what you say is that he wrote his novels away from Portugal. Cosuin Basilio in Havana, The Maias in Bristol, and so on. His memory for place, or imaginative ability to recreate it, was astounding.

    I know what you mean by the links to real places - they should have plaques. "On this spot..."

  3. The gender imbalance at the end is very powerful. I'm not sure that EdQ intended it to be viewed as a gender thing, perhaps more simply a power thing. But Amelia's pitiful death is in such contrast to Amaro's self-congratulation in Lisbon. If this is a bildungsroman, all he's learned is how to have his cake and eat it, now that he's mixing with the married women of the city. And yet I was very struck by the comment you left on my post, that Amaro has lost his spirituality, his ethical humanity. Whereas Amelia undergoes something sacred in her burial.

    It really is a brilliant ending that encompasses so much ambivalence whilst being so powerfully drawn.

  4. Wonderful comment. Nothing to add but appreciation.

  5. Outch! Eça is general very critical of Portuguese society (a national sport) and has made no excuses about feeling more French than Portuguese. There's this famous quote by him that goes (my own translation):

    “My novels, deep down, are French, just like I am, in almost everything, French – except in a certain sincere vein of lyric sadness, which is a Portuguese trait, a depraved taste for fado music, and a well-deserved love of cod with onions!”

  6. If anything, I feel I have harped too much on Eça's debt or links to French literature. But they are part of his project, central to his ideas.

    He does seem to mellow a bit with age. The Illustrious House of Ramires is the least French of his novels so far, and it is also more gently critical of Portuguese society.

    I enjoyed your Hidden Gems posts a lot, by the way.