The Crime of Father Amaro

Written by José Maria Eça de Queiroz Margaret Jull Costa (trans.)
Review by Adelaida Lower

The novelist José Maria Eça de Queiroz is often compared to Dickens, a Dickens refined, without sentimentalism. Born in a small Portuguese fishing town in 1845, the son of a retired judge and a nineteen-year-old unmarried girl, Eça de Queiroz went on to become a lawyer, a diplomat, and the founder of the Realist-Naturalist school in Portugal. The Crime of Father Amaro is only the first novel in a literary production that comprised short stories, chronicles, letters, essays, and literary criticism.

It is the unsparing portrait of a stagnant society, a novel filled with a host of fascinating secondary characters, unforgettably described. It is mordantly funny, tragic, and, above all, humane. It tells the destructive love story of Amaro Vieira, a Catholic priest and a “handsome, strapping lad,” and lovely Amelia. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of Leiria, a small Portuguese city, bursting with narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy. Eça spares no one; he rails against priests, who believe “the main cause of poverty…is immorality,” against superstition and provincialism. His eye for detail is striking, whether describing the physical beauty of the Portuguese countryside, the psychology of a character, or the distended bellies of poor children. It’s impossible not to wince when Amaro fumes, “Do they imagine that as soon as an old bishop says to a strong, young man ‘Thou shalt be chaste’ that his blood suddenly grows cold?” Jull Costa’s brilliant translation preserves Eça’s sharp, ironic prose and the elegant flavor of his humor. I hope Ms. Jull Costa will do the English-speaking world a tremendous favor and translate Eça’s other novels. His is a literary production not to be missed.