Good Offices, by Evelio Rosero
Good Offices is set in an ecclesiastical outpost of Bogotá, Columbia, presided over by the venerable Father Almida and the furtive Sacristan Celeste Machado, with help from the hunchback acolyte Tancredo, Machado’s nubile God-daughter Sabina and the ancient trio of fossilised Lilias.
When Father Almida and the Sacristan are called away on clandestine business, Mass must be delivered by the last and only candidate, the drunken priest Father Matamoros del Palacio. Breaking with the tradition of spoken Mass, Matamoros’s singing casts a spell over the congregation and as night falls the disruption to regimented routine leads the church community to break down inhibitions. As alcoholism, murder, sex and chastity all take a ringside seat as the events of the night unfold, the reverential Tancredo is forced to face the hypocrisy entrenched in every worshiper.
Like many, my interest was piqued by allusions to Bacchanalian desires, but this book promises more than it delivers. Don’t mistake Bacchanalian for Caligulan; personally I’ve had more spirited times playing Whist. While all the above primal and carnal urges are satiated in one form or the other, the development of the story doesn’t quite reach the climax it is aiming for. There are historical and cultural references that would enrich the story were they expanded on; references to sinister patronage by a parish benefactor Don Justiniano refer perhaps to Liberation Theology prevalent in the 1950s, the alternative to which was death for many priests. Many nebulous references to the situation that draws Father Almida away from his ward are never properly elucidated, and remain a mystery to those with no prior knowledge of this phase in South America’s history.
Anne McLean’s translation from Spanish for Independent Foreign Fiction Writer Evelio Rosero captures the contrariety and idiosyncrasy of the characters, who say one thing then do another, conveying an innate human quality despite the obligation to piety and deference. The Lilias feign meekness, saying dutifully, “you’ve done enough”, then immediately, irritably, “do something for God’s sake.” Tancredo is repelled by the touch of a woman, then experiences a volte-face as he is torn both by piety and bestial thoughts and deeds. He is shocked by the faithlessness of those around him, and sanctimonious about those that flout their authority when they are but molesters, drunks and thieves, yet as the most innocent of the protagonists, he too wrestles with his conscience and loses. We all battle internal demons – none of us are perfect.