The Sin of Father Amaro is a swingeing attack on the clergy of Portugal in the 19th.C. both individual members and institution. They are what their Lord and Master Jesus Christ would have called whited sepulchers using the Church as a cover for their sordid plotting, lusts and avarice. The ‘beatas’, that band of addled women oppressed by scruples and in thrall to the priests that batten on them in a spiritual vampirism meet at the house of a lady who is the the mistress of the Canon. This individual is also the mentor of a young priest who has been appointed to the local cathedral. De Queiroz’s description of the old ladies and the leech priests are like illustrations from Lombroso’s people to avoid supplement.
Dona Josepha, the canon’s sister, was also there. She was nick-named the Peeled Chestnut. She was a little withered creature, crookedly formed, with shrivelled, cider-coloured skin and a hissing voice; she lived in a state of perpetual irritation, her small eyes always alight, her nervous system eternally contracted, her whole attitude full of spleen. She was dreaded by all. The malignant Doctor Godhino called her the Central Station of the intrigues of Leiria.
In the woman’s house in which Fr. Amaro is staying is the 22 year old daughter; beautiful, fresh, virginal and prone to sentimental religiosity. Clearly in liturgical terms, a ‘suitable victim’.
Amaro is at first given charitable indulgence by the author; he has been, after all, press ganged into the clergy by a sponsor in the nobility who reared him and his sister. He is a fine vigourous handsome fellow whose health has markedly improved since his curacy in the mountains. The chief element of his cure was wrought by a facilitating shepherdess.
The leniency of the author becomes strained as he delineates beautifully the insidious seduction by the paroche of Amelia. From this point in our history we know how cult leaders can prey on the impressionable and devout. It is true that there are clergy who use the office to cloak their abuse but the author seems a misanthrope who finds no good in anyone, lay or clerical. This is perhaps a weakness in a purported realist. All the characters without exception are hypocrites, fools and knaves, the priests in particular combining all those traits in an odious melange. The progress towards tragedy is inevitable and the ebb and flow of the tide of guilt and ecstasy is closely observed.
First published in 1875, my translation by Nan Flanagan is from 1962. In 2002 Dedalus Books presented a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa. They have issued more of her translations of Eca De Queiroz which I shall be looking out for.