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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Crime of Father Amaro

José Maria de Eça de Queirós

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To purchase The Crime of Father Amaro

Title: The Crime of Father Amaro
Author: José Maria de Eça de Queirós
Genre: Novel
Written: 1880
Length: 471 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The Crime of Father Amaro - US
The Crime of Father Amaro - UK
The Crime of Father Amaro - Canada
Le Crime du Padre Amaro - France
Das Verbrechen des Paters Amaro - Deutschland
  • Scenes from the Religious Life
  • Portuguese title: O Crime do Padre Amaro
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Margaret Jull Costa (2002)
  • Earlier, considerably different versions of this novel were published in 1875 and 1876
  • Previous English translations include The Sin of Father Amaro by Nan Flanagan (1962)
  • El Crimen del padre Amaro, a film directed by Carlos Carrera and based on the novel, was released in 2002

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Our Assessment:

A- : fine, big novel of that time and place and certain segments of society

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Statesman . 2/3/1962 Richard Mayne
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/5/1963 Francis Steegmuller
TLS . 2/3/1962 .
TLS A 24/5/2002 Daniel Lukes
The Washington Post A+ 1/6/2003 Michael Dirda

  Note that the 1962/3 reviews refer to the Flanagan translation, the 2002/3 ones to the M. Jull Costa translation

  Review Consensus:

  A classic (though less enthusiastic about the earlier translation than the new one)

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n engrossing narrative, related with great control in a sequence of arresting situations involving characters who are often grotesque but unfailingly alive" - Francis Steegmuller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "His picture is inevitably now something of a period piece (...) and by modern standards some of the writing is rather long-winded. Yet even so it remians a memorable picture of a society that has gone soft." - Times Literary Supplement

  • "Although the cruel and pointless institution of celibacy is constantly in Eça's firing line, his major achievement resides in the wonderfully wrought depiction of 1870s Portuguese small-town life, a fragmented patchwork of shadowy whisperings, dubious goings-on and a claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and mistrust. (...) Margaret Jull Costa (....) provides a solid, clear and flowing translation, which ensures that Eça's drily understated satire, his harsh but lucid critique of human selfishness and inadequacy are telling; it also reflects his engaging sense of bathos and all that is amusingly grotesque." - Daniel Lukes, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This is a terrific novel, and I hardly go out on a limb in saying so. (...) The love story -- as classic as Heloise and Abelard -- provides the motor for Eça's novel, but its chief pleasure derives from its cynical humor, crisp narration and the social interactions of its slightly exaggerated characters, all of them observed by an author with a disdainful acceptance of both human frailty and divine indifference." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Crime of Father Amaro is set largely in Leira, a town some sixty miles from Lisbon (where Eça de Queirós was, briefly, a municipal administrator). The novel centres around Amaro Vieira, a young priest who, after briefly being sent to a parish in the farthest reaches of the provinces, gets this far more desirable post. (He manages to get the far better position despite his youth and inexperience through the intervention of a minister, cajoled by a woman; the reluctant minister even complains that "this is an abuse of power" (meaning both his and the woman's), but it's exactly how things work in this only superficially principled society.)
       Amaro was an unexceptional lad -- "as the servants put it, a 'bit of a namby-pamby'", as well as "a tittletattler and a liar" -- and he doesn't mature into an exceptional man. His parents died when he was very young, and circumstances led him to the seminary -- more for want of any alternatives than anything else. The priesthood is certainly not his calling, and from the beginning he often feels great frustration and resentment at being forced into this position. But once a priest he also knows how to use his position to best advantage -- especially vis-à-vis the ladies, many of whom still have the highest (and an often very emotional) regard for the clergy in the Portugal of that time.
       It's this portrait of the mediocre but generally not unsympathetic -- i.e. just very human -- Amaro, straight-jacketed by his collar and the restrictions and expectations of his office that make much of The Crime of Father Amaro so compelling. More than simply this, however, Eça de Queirós shows an entire society constricted by unreasonable rules and expectations -- and, very entertainingly, he shows that much is done only for show, and that beneath the surface reality looks very different indeed.
       Sex is one of the central problems for Father Amaro. He lusts, but it is impermissible for him to give in to his desires. Already weak, this situation only exacerbates the worst in him:

     He detested the whole secular world for having stripped him for ever of all his privileges, and since the priesthood excluded him from participation in human and social pleasures, he took refuge, instead, in the idea of the spiritual superiority his status gave him over other men.
       Unfortunately, whatever spiritual superiority he may have is solely ascribable to his status: he is, in fact, morally (and otherwise) very weak.
       He can not control himself, and finds in Amélia Caminha -- the daughter of his sometime landlady (ostensibly deeply devout, she herself has secretly long been intimately involved with a cleric) -- a promising victim. He feels great passion for Amélia, but it never entirely convinces as love -- but Eça presents their affair (and Amaro's concerns -- which are sometimes greater regarding his career, sometimes regarding the girl) in a way that one does hope for the best for the lovers.
       Amélia has a suitor, making it difficult for Amaro and her to commence their affair, but some unwise actions by the suspicious João Eduardo leave him the one disgraced. He too isn't perfect, resorting to some petty and foolish actions, but ultimately he is a decent fellow, truly in love with Amélia. But the values of the times are different ones, as someone explains to him:
     'My dear boy, you might as well possess all the social virtues, but, according to the religion of our country, any values that are not Catholic values are by definition useless and pernicious. Being hard-working, chaste, honest, fair, truthful are great virtues, but to the priests and to the Church they don't count. You could be the very model of kindness, but if you didn't go to mass, didn't fast or go to confession, didn't doff your hat to the priest, you would be considered a rogue.
       And, as Eça repeatedly points out, it's not merely that the Church sets the standards: the Church (and its servants) are often hypocrites, not living up to many of the most fundamental virtues.
       Amélia and Amaro have a rather heated affair. Since it is so difficult for them to get together alone without being observed their relationship is almost purely sexual; when they're together in company their true thoughts and feelings must, of course, remain unspoken. In one of the best touches in the novel, they find a safe trysting spot: a creaking bed above the room of a disturbed invalid teenage girl, horribly revealing their true characters in the way they treat her, while Eça brilliantly conveys the girl's torment and confusion.
       Again and again Amaro lies, a weak man acting only in self-interest. The situation comes to a predictable head when his affair with Amélia results in the not unexpected consequence of repeated intercourse. Astonishingly, they find that this too can be taken care of, as Amaro is willing to continue to deceive at all costs. Things do spin slightly out of control, but it is Amaro that emerges unscathed -- and Amaro who leaves a trail of ruined lives behind him.

       The Crime of Father Amaro is a novel of impressive sweep. Several of the central characters are clergymen, and obviously Eça's main target is the Church, but it is, in fact, a novel of society as a whole at that time, where the Church happens to play a very significant and influential role. Remarkably, there is very little description of actual religious observance -- only one of Father Amaro's masses is described in any detail, and he doesn't seem to do much ministering to his flock. Instead, the focus is on the interaction of the characters, mainly those that assemble in what might be considered São Joaneira's salon, but also a few others. There are perhaps more clergymen than in most society-novels describing that time, but since most of them are as socially (and sexually) active as everyone else (and quite a few characters are, of course, both socially and sexually not very active) one often hardly notices. Amaro is like most other cads -- except that he has an excuse that allows him to get away with his behaviour more easily, as long as he is discreet in his affairs. (The only lesson he's learned by the end ? "Now I only confess married ladies.")
       There's a wonderful cast of characters, very well-presented, including many of the secondary characters -- such as the anti-religious Morgado de Poiais and the one truly good priest, Father Ferrão (who both enjoy a good dispute). It is Ferrão who tries to put things right, exposing Amaro's manipulative ways to the weak Amélia while keeping alive the "idea of a legitimate love" in her ("he knew she was all flesh and desire").
       Eça constantly holds out the possibility of things being set right -- almost never succumbing to a completely bleak outlook or even description of events. Even Amaro, who does very many contemptible things, is a character that Eça has some sympathy for, and he refuses to portray him as simply evil. Amaro is, at best, a mediocre soul, but it is the circumstances that bring out the worst in him, and it is these circumstances -- especially the position of the Church in society -- that Eça decries. Typical of his outlook is a sentence near the very end: "And beneath the warm splendid sky, this whole decrepit world moved sluggishly along".
       Despite some horrible goings on, The Crime of Father Amaro is also full of cheer, with good doses of humour throughout. Thankfully, Eça isn't sour and bitter in his condemnation. He shows how both individuals and society as a whole muddle through this odd world they find themselves in, taking it pretty much as best they can. It makes for an entertaining and often riveting read.

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The Crime of Father Amaro: Reviews: El Crimen del padre Amaro - the film: José Maria de Eça de Queirós: Other books by Eça de Queiróz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Portuguese author José Maria de Eça de Queirós lived 1845 to 1900.

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