A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Tancredo, a young hunchback, observes and participates in the goings-on at the church in which he lives under the wing of Father Almida. Also in residence are the sacristan and his goddaughter, Sabina Cruz, and three widows known collectively as the Lilias, who do the cooking and cleaning and provide charity meals for Bogota’s poor and needy. One Thursday, Father Almida and the sacristan are summoned to an audience with the parish’s principal benefactor, Don Justiniano. It will be the first time Father Almida has not taken Mass for forty years. Eventually they find a stand-in, Father Matamoros, a drunkard with an angel’s voice whose sung Mass is spellbinding to all. The Lilias prepare a sumptuous meal for Father Matamoros, who persuades them to drink with him. Over the course of a long night the women and Tancredo lose their inhibitions and give free reign to their most Bacchanalian desires.
I can’t actually begin to say how luxuriously and stormingly good this perfect little novella is. When I saw the blurb, in which all my favourite things of religion, sex, forbidden passion and the church are combined, I simply couldn’t resist it. And it more than repaid the time it takes to read it.
My only minor gripe was that, having served as a sacristan myself for two years (ah the pain and terror of it all, but that’s a whole other story …), I would have liked to see more of the sacristan here, but never mind, it was not to be. And, frankly, there’s such a great deal of other stuff going on in a gloriously subtle way that, really, I didn’t feel the loss.
That said, rest assured it’s an extremely literary book. It felt very much like a delicious combination between Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and any of the priest novels by Graham Greene. But far more human and humane than the latter (sorry, all you Greene fans – but I do think his work could be extraordinarily cold). The experience of reading it (as a writer) has been much like moseying along to what one expects will be a friendly tennis match and then being faced with Novak Djokovic, the Wimbledon 2011 champion. I know when I’m hopelessly outclassed, but writing of this standard is always a pleasure.
Tancredo is also a superb and fascinating narrator who held my attention with his thoughts, emotions and observational mind all the way through. Slowly, the background and net of relationships in which he lives is revealed and, with each small revelation, my attention was further gripped.
In any case, how could anyone resist a first line as powerful and eye-opening as this:
He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime.
One can’t help but long to read on. There’s humour in the book too, mainly from Tancredo’s observations. I did enjoy the description of the behaviour of the old folk at the weekly charity lunch, and his increasing desperation to get them to leave. How it brought back memories of my time working in an old people’s home. They are a law unto themselves indeed.
Tancredo’s relationship with Sabina is also delicately but powerfully portrayed. There were, for me, many echoes of Lady Macbeth in Sabina and, along those lines, echoes of the witches in those three Lilias. This Shakespearian nod is well handled and deliberate, and sets up the increasingly strange and almost unholy magic that arises when Father Matamoros arrives.
I must say also that there’s a very powerful and disturbing scene involving the Lilias and their cats (Jackie – please be warned, for the second time this reviewing year, I fear …). It’s excellently done and absolutely has to be there, but I appreciate some will not like it.
Father Matamoros himself is almost a figure of Christ, with his astonishingly beautiful singing voice being the bridge that links the churchgoers with their vision of heaven. As the holiness increases, so too does the sensuality, and the sense of something about to happen, or which has already happened:
For as long as Tancredo can remember, that was the night that shed light on all his nights, a different and devastating night, the beginning or end of his life, agony or resurrection, God alone knows which.
During this night of sanctity and sin, several confessions are made, all of them creating a key turning point for the people making them, and changing utterly how events are expected to unfold. As the tensions mount, so too does the powerful poetry inherent in the text – itself part of the magic – and it is this that brings the story to its astonishing and deeply mysterious end.
I loved it. As you can probably tell. In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you read no other book in the year ahead, then do at least read this one. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Good Offices, MacLehose Press 2009. ISBN: 978 0 85705 067 0
Also available as an eBook
[Anne can never resist the witches’ brew of sex and religion, and often writes about it herself.]