Bood Review - Good Offices

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.

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.

Trancredo’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.

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