Good Offices — Evelio Rosero

In Poetics, that ancient didact Aristotle informs us that admirable drama adheres to unities of action, place, and time. There must be no extraneous subplots, just one central action confined to a specific and defined place and time—no more than 24 hours, in fact.

I was reminded of these (oft-broken) rules when reading Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices, a sharp, gleaming novel that illustrates just how effective these classical unities might be in the hands of a gifted author. Rosero’s tale snakes out over the course of only a few hours and takes place entirely in a Catholic church in Bogotá, Colombia. The action—more on that in a moment—is indivisible from the time and place.

Good Offices centers on Tancredo, a hunchback afflicted with “a terrible fear of being an animal.” Tancredo is basically an indentured servant of the church, strung along by Father Almida’s promises of a college education that never seems to surface. His great “cross to bear” is the program of Community Meals that Father Almida mandates (yet never helps execute) each night—charity meals for children, old people, blind people, whores, and families (all segregated by day of the week, naturally). In particular, Tancredo hates the nights for the old people, indigents who complain about the free food and then pretend to be dead so they don’t have to go back to the dark streets of Bogotá. Sometimes they do die though, and it’s Tancredo who must discover their abject corpses.

Aiding Tancredo in the family meal labor are Sabina Cruz, and the Lilias, three ancient widows of the same name who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Moirae. It is the Lilia’s lot to cook these massive meals, making something from nothing, essentially, a job made all the harder by their arthritic joints. They pester Tancredo mercilessly. Sabina doesn’t so much pester Tancredo as haunt him, imploring repeatedly that they run away together. She’s the sexton’s god-daughter, and like Tancredo she is more or less church property. What our cast shares in common is a suppressed humanity, that vital spark now ground down to a dim nub.

This feeling of endless, indefinite weariness hangs over our heroes at the beginning of the novel, as we see here, when the sexton and priest begin an interrogation of sorts of Tancredo—

. . . he felt worn out, exhausted: after the old people crawling around the hall, over and under the table, bathed in soup, stepped in filth and saliva, like a Roman orgy or a witches’s Sabbath, to have a to face the sacristan’s inquisition infuriated him. Once again he experienced the dreadful fear of becoming an animal, or the desire to be one, which was worse. He imagined himself dashing that table against the ceiling; kicking over the chairs of the Church’s two representatives; tipping out their occupants, pissing on their sacred heads; pursuing Sabina, pulling up her heavy lay sister’s skirt, ripping into the apparent innocence of her blouse, buttoned up to the neck, pawing her breasts, pinching her belly button, her thighs, her backside. Truly, he thought, aghast, he needed to confess to the Father about his dreadful fear of being an animal, and the sooner the better.

Rosero’s remarkable prose here twists through the writhing subsurface urges the Catholic Church has worked for hundreds of years to suppress. The writing is violent, funny, sexy, and passionate, culminating in a devastating punchline. The passage is indicative of the book’s strange blending of tones, a sardonic but also sensual crash course in the seven sins.

Almida is too busy to take the time to fully listen to Tancredo’s confession though—he and the sexton must rush to meet a rich benefactor (a gangster, of course). For the first time ever, Almida will miss the mass, necessitating a substitute: Father Matamoros.

To Tancredo’s horror, part of Matamoros’ preparation involves getting drunk; however, he sings the mass in a beautiful voice that entrances the congregants—including Tancredo and the Lilias, who are so enthralled they set to work preparing a feast. Matamoros insists they drink with him, and in time, our principals are all quite drunk, not just on the fine wine that Almida and the sexton secret away for themselves, but also on the Lilia’s rich feast and Matamoros’ splendid singing. These visceral pleasures inject a humanity (and real purpose for living) that has been missing in the church for far too long, and as the night creeps into the morning, the rapture caused by the stranger’s presence overwhelms our cast.

Having lost faith in Almida (and perhaps Catholicism and even God), Tancredo confesses to Matomoros. Before I offer another passage of Rosero’s sensual, intense writing, let me commend the work of translators Anne McLean and Anna Milsom. From Tancredo’s second confession—

Without knowing how, Tancredo resumed the conversation, as if he really had been holding that non-existent conversation with the Father, or did it exist?  Whatever the case, he said, or kept on saying, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that he had dreamt, Father, that he had an Indian slave-girl, tied up in with a chain like an animal, and that he took her for a walk through a sunlit meadow, the sun, the smell of the sunshine, “everything full of the most terrible lustfulness, Father, hanging over our heads, it was impossible not to take her in my arms, the soft moss offered itself, the leafy oak gave its shade, she stretched out wearily on the grass, it wrapped itself around her like a sheet, offering her rest, and, with the same chain I used for leading her about, she drew me toward her, as if I were an animal and not her, and she spread her legs and all her Hell burned me, Father.”

Matamoros offers Tancredo comfort, if not wisdom, but in treating the young man like a human and not an animal in bondage, he underscores the simple but strong theme of the book.

I won’t spoil more of Good Offices, which I think you should read. It’s a compact, vigorous treat, often blue, sharp as a scimitar, and saturated in suspense. Like any good Aristotelian drama, Rosero’s novel offers catharsis for its audience, but its greater impact comes from what it withholds, from what is left implicit, lingering under the details that ball together toward an end that is funny, horrific, and quite moving. Highly recommended.

Good Offices is new from New Directions this month.

Biblioklept’s Favorite Books of the Summer

With Memorial Day ’11 just a memory and Labor Day warning off the wearing of white, I revisit some of the best books I read this summer:

Although I posted a review of Roberto Bolaño’s collection Between Parentheses two weeks before Memorial Day, I continued to read and reread the book over the entire summer. It was the gift that kept giving, a kind of blurry filter for the summer heat, a rambling literary dictionary for book thieves. For example, when I started Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk a week or two ago, I spent a beer-soaked midnight tracing through Bolaño’s many notations on the Polish self-exile.

Trans-Atlantyk also goes on this list, or a sub-list of this list: great books that I’ve read, been reading (or in some cases, listened to/am listening to) but have not yet reviewed. I finished Trans-Atlantyk at two AM Sunday morning (surely the intellectual antidote to having watched twelve hours of college football that day) and it’s one of the strangest, most perplexing books I’ve ever read—and that’s saying something. Full review when I can process the book (or at least process the idea of processing the book).

I also read and absolutely loved Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit, which is almost as bizarre as Trans-Atlantyk; like that novel (and Hoban’s cult classic Riddley Walker), Kleinzeit  is written in its own idiom, an animist world where concepts like Death and Action and Hospital and even God become concrete characters. It’s funny and sad. Also funny and sad: Christopher Boucher’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (new from Melville House). Like Trans-Atlantyk and Kleinzheit, Volkswagen is composed in its own language, a concrete surrealism full of mismatched metaphorical displacements. It’s a rare bird, an experimental novel with a great big heart. Full reviews forthcoming.

I’ll be running a review of Evelio Rosero’s new novel Good Offices this week, but I read it two sittings at the beginning of August and it certainly belongs on this list. It’s a compact and spirited satire of corruption in a Catholic church in Bogotá, unwinding almost like a stage play over the course of a few hours in one life-changing evening for a hunchback and his friends. Good stuff.

On the audiobook front, I’ve been working my way through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series; I finished the first audiobook, A Game of Thrones, after enjoying the HBO series, and then moved into the second book, A Clash of Kings, which I’m only a few hours from completing. I think that the HBO series, which follows the first book fairly faithfully, is much closer to The Wire or Deadwood than it is to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films—the story is less about fantasy and magic than it is about political intrigue during an ongoing civil war. This is a world where honor and chivalry, not to mention magic and dragons, have disappeared, replaced by Machiavellian cunning and schemers of every stripe. Martin slowly releases fantastic elements into this largely desacralized world, contesting his characters’ notions of order and meaning. There are also beheadings. Lots and lots of beheadings. The books are a contemporary English department’s wet dream, by the by. Martin’s epic concerns decentered authority; it critiques power as a constantly shifting set of differential relations lacking a magical centering force. He also tells his story through multiple viewpoints, eschewing the glowing third person omniscient lens that usually focuses on grand heroes in fantasy, and concentrates instead, via a sharp free indirect style, on protagonists who have been relegated to the margins of heroism: a dwarf, a cripple, a bastard, a mother trying to hold her family together, a teenage exile . . . good stuff.

Leo Tolstoy’s final work Hadji Murad also depicts a world of shifting power, civil war, unstable alliances, and beheadings (although not as many as in Martin’s books). Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. This novel concerns Murad’s attempt to defect to the Russians and save his family, which Shamil has captured. The book is a richly detailed and surprisingly funny critique of power and violence.

William Faulkner’s Light in August might be the best book I read this summer; it’s certainly the sweatiest, headiest, and grossest, filled with all sorts of vile abjection and hatred. Faulkner’s writing is thick, archaeological even, plowing through layers of Southern sediment to dig up and reanimate old corpses. The book is somehow both nauseating and vital. Not a pleasant read, to be honest, but one that sticks with you—sticks in you even—long after the last page.

Although David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King was released in the spring, I didn’t start reading it until June; too much buzz in my ears. If you’ve avoided reading it so far because of the hype, fair enough—but don’t neglect it completely. It’s a beautiful, frustrating, and extremely rewarding read.

Speaking of fragments from dead writers: part two of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich, published in the summer issue of The Paris Review, was a perfect treat over the July 4th weekend. I’m enjoying the suspense of a serialized novel far more than I would have imagined.

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation is probably the funniest, wisest, and most moving work of cultural studies I’ve ever read.  Unlike many of the tomes that clutter academia, Humiliation is accessible, humorous, and loving, a work of philosophical inquiry that also functions as cultural memoir. Despite its subject of pain and abjection, it repeatedly offers solutions when it can, and consolation and sympathy when it cannot.

So the second posthumously published, unfinished novel from a suicide I read this summer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, the sultry strange tale of a doomed ménage à trois. (I’m as humiliated by that last phrase as you might be, dear reader. Sorry). Hemingway’s story of young beautiful newlyweds drinking and screwing and eating their way across the French Riviera is probably the weirdest thing he ever wrote. It’s a story of gender reversals, the problems of a three-way marriage, elephant hunting, bizarre haircuts, and heavy, heavy drinking. The Garden of Eden is perhaps Hemingway at his most self-critical; it’s a study in how Hemingway writes (his protagonist and stand-in is a rising author) that also actively critiques his shortcomings (as both author and human). The Garden of Eden should not be overlooked when working through Hemingway’s oeuvre. I’d love to see a critical edition with the full text someday (the novel that Scribner published pared down Hemingway’s unfinished manuscript to about a third of its size).

Also fragmentary fun: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks. Like Twitter before Twitter, sort of.

These weren’t the only books I read this summer but they were the best.