Summer Reading 2003

Summer Reading 2003: Margaret Jull Costa's new translation of a sexy 19th-century Portugese satire

Summer Reading 2003

A synopsis of The Crime of Father Amaro (New Directions, $14.95, paper) might sound like a knockoff of the old Thorn Birds television miniseries: Young impassioned Catholic priest goes against his faith to carry on a clandestine affair with a nubile young parishioner. A 2002 movie based on the novel, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, followed this structure closely, tossing in a few drug lords for flavor. Written by 19th-century Portuguese author Eça de Queirós and presented in a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa, The Crime of Father Amaro is among the darkest and most biting of religious satires. The ostensible crime of Father Amaro is his seduction of young Amélia; his real crime is his manipulation of his parishioners and his own religious beliefs, all in order to keep Amélia in his bed. The priests around him are little better, colluding in various deceptions themselves. Before the end of the book, every one of the mortal sins has been committed, not to mention quite a few of the venal ones. Amaro lies and eventually murders in order to preserve his comforts. Equally responsible, however, is the church of his time. Amaro seduces Amélia, but he is also one who is seduced. His parishioners are influenced easily and his fellow priests are more than willing to influence them for political and personal ends. De Queirós' use of description is as visually focused as his wit is sharp. Every physical detail of Amaro's surroundings, each shack and resplendent bourgeois salon, stands out in bright relief. As translated by Jull Costa, de Queirós' language is capable of glowing softly as well as casting a glaring light. It brings a sparkling, brilliant clarity and an unrelenting sense of social absurdity that makes it essentially youthful. And who doesn't love a juicy story of sex and corruption? -- Barbara Strickland

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