The Sin of Father Amaro by Eça de Queiroz

Black Swan, 1985, 430 p. Translated from the Portuguese, O Crime do Padre Amaro, by Nan Flanagan.

 The Sin of Father Amaro  cover

Like The Sealwoman’s Gift this is a story about the conflict between duty and conscience on the one hand and human urges on the other. As I noted before, the cover of this book is something of a spoiler, leaving little doubt as to the nature of Father Amaro’s fall from grace. And the title is inaccurate in that, though it is rather skated over and only mentioned in two short passages, he had already fallen in his previous parish, Feirão, before he met the Amelia Joanneira who is the other focus of the novel – and there is a further crime to add to his debit account by the story’s end. Set in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, The Sin of Father Amaro is, however, about more than a single priest’s misdeeds, dealing as it also does with the privileged position the Portuguese Roman Catholic clergy enjoyed and the hypocrisy it encouraged.

The titular sinner is Amaro Vieira, a junior priest (paroco,) more or less forced into the priesthood by circumstance, who comes to the parish of Lieira after finding existence in Feirão too spartan for him. The senior priest, Canon Dias, arranges for him to lodge with Senhora Joanneira (a woman with whom we find later he himself is having relations) and whose daughter Amelia is profoundly religious. Nevertheless, the proximity between the paroco and her will tend to its natural conclusion. No matter how religions attempt them (usually by blaming women) efforts to curb human sexuality will always founder, as is true in any other societal arrangement.

The pair’s attachment grows despite Amelia also being subject to the attentions of a young clerk, João Eduardo. He is a potential firebrand who finds the strictures of religion claustrophobic and is agitated by the connection between Amaro and Amelia. To try to allay suspicion she agrees to marry Eduardo (a temporary rift between Amaro and Amelia ensues) but a tract he writes anonymously for a periodical called The District excoriating the cosy hypocrisy of clerical impunity and hinting heavily at Amaro’s failings, causes a minor scandal. On being exposed and confronted he strikes Amaro and is excommunicated. As a religious woman cannot be associated with an excommunicant Amelia withdraws her consent to marriage and Eduardo leaves the town. The coast is then clear for the liaison between Amaro and Amelia to come to fruition.

The newpaper editor, Dr Godinho, tells Eduardo when he bemoans his fate, “a good Catholic; his thoughts, his ideas, his feelings, his conversations, the employment of his days and nights, his relations towards his family and his neighbours, the food he eats, the clothes he wears, his diversions – all is regulated by the ecclesiastical authority (abbot, bishop or canon) approved or censured by his confessor, counselled and ordered by him as the director of his conscience. The good Catholic, such as your little girl, doesn’t belong to herself; she has no judgement, no wishes, no free will, nor individual feeling; her priest thinks, wishes, determines, feels for her. Her only work in this world is to accept this direction; accept it without discussion, obey it, no matter what its demands.” When Eduardo argues that’s all very well except when love is devouring someone, Godinho says, “Love is one of the greatest forces of civilisation,” but adds a warning, “the heart is a term which usually serves us, for decency’s sake, to designate another organ. It is precisely this other organ which is the only one interested, in the majority of cases, in affairs of sentiment. In those cases the grief doesn’t last.”

Whether it truly reflects de Queiroz’s attitudes or only those of the time (and of later it must be said) there is a strong course of misogyny running through the book. The master of moral at Amaro’s seminary had “explained the anathema of the saints against women, who were, according to the expressions of the Church, Serpents, Darts, Children of Lies, Doors of Hell, Sources of Crime, Scorpions ….. Paths of Iniquity, iniquitas via.” This leads Amaro to ruminate on the conflict between this and the fact that one of these pariahs was enthroned over the altar as Queen of Grace. In another instance Abbot Ferrão opines to Canon Dias that being possessed by the devil only happens to women, never to respectable notaries nor dignified judges. A character called Pinheiro compares a woman to a shadow, “if we run after her she runs away from us; if we run away from her she runs after us.”

In situations such as occur in this book it was always of course, the woman who paid the price of sin, in novels, as in life. In his depiction of Amaro, de Queiroz does not let him off the hook of culpability, but his position ensures he does not incur a penalty for it.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Make you mind easy’” (your mind,) waggon (wagon,) shrunk (x 3, shrank,) sprung (sprang,) Sanches’ (Sanches’s,) Novaes’ (Novaes’s,) St Carlos’ (St Carlos’s,) Fernandos’ (Fernandos’s,) Nunes’ (Nunes’s,) “all was not lost” (not all was lost,) strategem (x 3, stratagem,) “a whole series of caresses were necessary to calm her” (a whole series … was necessary.)

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