Cards on the table: I’m a bit of a hipster. Yeah, I know that’s hardly news; my picture in my about me feature speaks volumes. But it doesn’t end with my appearance, because I’m one of those really annoying people who will tell you Mullholland Drive and not Blue Velvet is David Lynch’s best movie; I will not listen to Otis Redding records, but instead prefer Jerry Butler; I follow German football; I date DJ’s and artists. And so on. See, I like obscure things, things a little off the beaten track, and that attitude extends to my reading. I love [at least the idea of] so-called neglected or forgotten books. Want a tip? Go find a copy of How to Quiet a Vampire by Borislav Pekic or The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson. Both are excellent and not often enough given their due.
So, anyway, I was speaking to someone the other day about why certain novels never capture public attention. Why is it, I asked, that some books continue to resonate with readers hundreds of years after their publication, despite describing ways of living and attitudes that are no longer applicable to our own, and some do not? Why is it, for example, that Anna Karenina is hugely popular, and well-known, and something like the book under review here, The Crime of Father Amaro, isn’t? Both are critically acclaimed [I’ve never seen a negative review of either], both are, we’re told in those reviews, well written, and yet Father Amaro has never been anything more than a footnote.
Perhaps the most persuasive, or certainly the most appealing, answer would be that books like Anna Karenina deal with universal ideas and themes and the other books, the forgotten or neglected books, books like Father Amaro, do not. While it is the case that certain attitudes present in Anna Karenina ,and certain kinds of behaviour, etc, seem outdated to us now, there is still plenty in the book that relates to our experience of the world, such as marriage and adultery and the treatment of women. Father Amaro, on the other hand, is about Catholic priests, and corruption within the church; the scope of the novel seems so small as to potentially alienate non-religious believers or people from countries that are not still under the influence of the church.
However, it is my opinion that all books house universal ideas and themes, because they are, as far as I am aware, all written by human beings. Father Amaro’s subject might appear to have narrow appeal, but, putting aside priests and Catholicism for a moment, the themes at the heart of the novel are hypocrisy, and abuse of power, and failure of duty; and these are things that we all understand and can relate to. The priests preach tolerance, forgiveness, moderation, etc, and yet they are shown to be gluttonous, lascivious liars. Indeed, it is amazing to me that the novel was not at the time of publication [and even now] more controversial. I might be wrong, but I would think that anything showing priests in such a relentlessly bad light would really get some knickers in a twist; these priests sleep around, they conspire against each other and the town’s inhabitants, they blaspheme [one speaks about the confessional as only being useful so as to find stuff out or direct people for your own benefit] and so on.
Of course, we are an increasingly secular world, and so perhaps any mention of religion is likely to put people off. That would certainly be the case for many British readers, because the irreligious British, generally speaking, don’t like to engage with any religious sentiment or discussion at all. However, I would say that the religion in Father Amaro is far more palatable to a modern, secular, audience than that in Anna Karenina, where a religious conversion takes place. Father Amaro is a satire, it is poking fun at the clergy, while Tolstoy was absolutely in earnest about the power of Christianity.
So, if it isn’t the case that Anna Karenina has more universal appeal, could its popularity, its status, be put down to timing and exposure? Tolstoy was, of course, Russian, and Russian literature, even at the time of publication, was held in high regard. Russia was a vanguard country, in terms of literature. Being a fine Russian author, then, will mean greater exposure, more interest in your work. Eca de Queiroz, however, was Portuguese, which, to this day, has no great literary heritage. Indeed, Eca de Queiroz himself wrote about what he saw as an artless society [Portugal’s] in his book The Maias; in fact, he describes the country as one that has no culture of its own, as one that imports everything. You could say then that Tolstoy rode the zeitgeist, was fortunate to have been Russian and writing at a point when people were more likely to be interested in his work, but I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. Certainly, being Portuguese didn’t stop Jose Saramago winning the Nobel Prize.
As a true hipster it pains me to say that the real reason that The Crime of Father Amaro isn’t more popular and more widely read is because the book aint actually that good. This is not to say that it is poor, that it isn’t readable, or even worth reading; there are, in fact, some lovely touches; the first 100 pages, in particular, which deal with Amaro’s upbringing and arrival in Leira were very enjoyable. My favourite part of the book is when it is explained how the sensitive Amaro comes to train as a priest, or why he is in favour of doing so, which is not out of religious feeling but from a desire to be close to women; young Amaro is a sensualist, rather than a ladies man, or sleaze; he is shown to enjoy female company, to like their attention and being fussed over by them. I thought that was great stuff. The central love story is refreshingly lacking in melodrama too.
So, I am by no means saying that Father Amaro is bad, merely that it is average. His characters are fine, without ever being particularly memorable; the book lacks any real psychological or philosophical weight; the prose is steady but never outstanding, although it is occasionally funny; the story is engaging enough and yet at no point are you compelled to switch your phone off, tell your girlfriend you’re ill and can’t accept visitors, and hunker down for a few days to whip through the book at a mad pace.