Tancredo, a young hunchback, observes and participates in the rites at the Catholic church where he lives under the care of Father Almida. Also in residence are the sexton Celeste Machado, his goddaughter Sabina Cruz, and three widows known collectively as the Lilias, who do the cooking and cleaning and provide charity meals for the local poor and needy. One Thursday, Father Almida and the sexton must rush off to meet the parish’s principal benefactor, Don Justiniano. It will be the first time in forty years Father Almida has not said mass. Eventually they find a replacement: Father Matamoros, a drunkard with a beautiful voice whose sung mass is spellbinding to all. The Lilias prepare a sumptuous meal for Father Matamoros, who persuades them to drink with him. Over the course of the long night the women and Tancredo lose their inhibitions and confess their sins and stories to this strange priest, and in the process re- veal lives crippled by hypocrisy.
One thing became clear to me early on – while reading Good Offices by Evelio Rosero – was its fluidity. Reading such a beautiful and energetic translation – by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom – I lost myself in its simplicity and free flowing narrative. I felt as if Rosero was conducting a small orchestra, a solo violin performance, or perhaps I was sitting at the theatre where one solitary voice spoke to me, just like an actor on stage reciting a monologue. Whatever the performance, be it classical or acting, I was spellbound and couldn’t put the book down finishing it in one sitting.
To me I imagined Rosero sitting down in his favourite writing chair, a glass of his favourite tipple in close proximity and writing the first thing that came to his head with a prose that simply flowed and flowed until the finality of its conclusion.
Good Offices oozes quality from the magnificent print, sumptuous prose and a high quality paper. Such a tactile book, even though it may be a little short on stature weighing in at just 142 pages, this is an elegant book – something you come to expect from MacLehose Press.
The story is a curious one and takes place over a relatively short time period of one day and one night. Good Offices is vibrant and imaginative and despite its limited scope I found it quirky and surprisingly moreish. Characterisation is obviously limited but Tancredo, Father Matamoros and the Lilias stole the show for me especially when alcohol was consumed and its effects obvious for all to see!
I’m not going to comment on the religious side of the book as I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough in the intricacies of the Catholic Church and its inner sanctum. Suffice to say some of the vocabulary – particularly during the mass – went way over my head but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. With the arrival of Father Matamoros, who stands in the lead the mass with minutes to spare, the fun begins and thanks to a rather healthy dose of 25% proof Hazelnut liqueur Matamoros conducts himself with aplomb considering his inebriated state. An instant hit with one and all, the congregation is moved in a way that has been severely lacking for some time. Matamoros is a breath of fresh air and they simply can’t get enough of him.
Mass had finished , but the old ladies of the Neighbourhood Civic Association remained rigid in their seats, pillars of the Church, absorbed in mute song, the silence of centuries.
It was as if no-one wanted to leave.
The story itself then descends into a black comedy where anything can and does happen. Suffice to say there are a few shocks in store but Rosero manages to keep it all fairly believable – to a point! The book made me smile and I came away grateful for having read it, not much more you can ask from a book. Set in Bogotá this is the first time I’ve read a book set in Colombia and I can categorically say it won’t be the last!
Published by MacLehose Press Good Offices is available in Hardback & Kindle.
The Catholic Church has had a bad press of late with a series of damaging child-abuse scandals and shameful cover-ups. Its opposition to contraception and abortion, its subjugation of women and its homophobia have also come under fire. EvelioRosero, prize-winning author of The Armies, offers a unique take on the Catholic Church’s institutional failings in this surreal portrait of one of its Colombian outposts.
the church coffers are overflowing with money and the priest and his sacristan grow fat on the extravagant meals prepared for them by the three aging widows known as the Lilias.
Trancredo the hunchback is responsible for serving charity meals to the destitute of Bogotá. Each day a different group receive the parish church’s meagre leftovers: “meals put together at minimum cost…potato soup and rice with potatoes were the sole insipid ingredients, army mush reserved for the blind, the street children the prostitutes.” Meanwhile, the church coffers are overflowing with money and the priest and his sacristan grow fat on the extravagant meals prepared for them by the three aging widows known as the Lilias.
Tancredo’s biggest fear is of “being an animal”. Full of remorse at having embarked on a passionate affair with Sabina, the sacristan’s lascivious god daughter, Trancredo tries to fend off her advances, afraid of being discovered and thrown out of the church that took him in as a young boy.
When the depraved Father Almida and his sidekick the sacristan are called for an urgent meeting with their mobster benefactor, Don Justiniano, a replacement priest is called in to take the Mass. Father Matamoros is a drunk who spikes the communion wine with aguardiente, but he bewitches the congregation by daring to sing the Mass in Latin.
Even Tancredo is affected and, after the sermon, finds himself confessing his fears to the priest. The Lilias prepare a lavish banquet to express their gratitude, before joining Matamoros in a night of debauchery and bloodlust that ends in them exacting a terrible revenge on their oppressors.
Rosero’s colourful cast of characters will remain in your memory long after the final page is turned, particularly those whose outward appearance belies their inner turmoil. Sabina is described as a “tempestuous spirit locked inside [a] fragile blonde body”. While the Lilies are introduced as suitably devout, indistinguishable from one another, “dressed in black, their Sunday best, the three of them with trimmed hats, veils and Missals, patent leather shoes, their hands redolent of onions, their breath smelling of various dishes, in their eyes the flames still lingered, the fatigue from mincing meat and garlic, from squeezing lemons…” Later, under the sway of Matamoros, their repressed fury is unleashed.
Just as The Armies depicted the chaos that erupts in a rural town besieged by violence, Good Offices focuses on a small, insular community, in order to highlight a wider malaise. Rosero’s evocative prose is lucidly translated by Anne Mclean and Anna Milsom, and his darkly comic satire hits its mark with an unsettling ferocity.