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.