Evelio Rosero won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009 with his novel of civil war descending on a small Columbian village, The Armies. Now he returns with a second novel translated into English, Good Offices, where we are introduced to another isolated and inward-looking community, though with the more pacific setting of a church. This is a slighter novel, weighing in at only 141 pages, and the story it tells takes place over one night, with little in the way of action. What it does share with its predecessor is the haunting sense of a perfectly realised other world with its own unsettling logic.
The main character is a young hunchback, Tancredo, who has been brought up in the care of the church, and Father Almida in particular. Tancredo describes Almida’s household as being made up of:
“…the three Lilias, Machado the sacristan, his god-daughter, Sabina Cruz, and he himself, the acolyte, he himself, Tancredo, he himself, the hunchback.”
As we have been aware from the opening sentence (“He has a terrible fear of being an animal”), Tancredo is uneasy about his identity. He spends much of his time organising the community meals the church offer (for the elderly, for prostitutes, for street children: on each day there is a different category of needy), but has been long promised that the church will finance his further studies in theology and philosophy (though Almida has “been saying the same thing for the three years they had been offering the Community Meals”). He has also been secretly visiting Sabina in her room at night but has now decided, despite her pleas, that he “won’t be coming anymore.” He offers her little in the way of explanation, and we are given the impression of a character who would wish to assert his own identity if he could only be sure what it was. When the sacristan is introduced he is described as:
“…an obscure man, a shadow like the Lilias, and not just because he dressed all in black, but because of his deep reserve, a ring of blackness like a pit.”
To some extent this is true of all the characters, with Rosero deliberately obscuring their motives.
The chance for change occurs when Almida and the sacristan have to leave to visit a wealthy parishioner:
“Tonight…this very night, for the first time in all the years I lived with him, Reverend Father Juan Pablo Almida will not say Mass.”
After some difficulty locating a replacement, Father Matamoros appears. Though clearly a drunk, he sings like an angel and his Mass makes a profound impression on the congregation, the Lilias in particular. They ply him with food and drink, and we soon discover dark undertones in their comments on a particular cat who steals from their kitchen:
“He’s the thief…He’s driving us to despair, he’s asking for trouble, as they say; he gives cats a bad name.”
The name of this cat? Almida. Eventually even Tancredo is able to confide in the priest and “make his confession”:
“’No-one can rest here,’ he said, ‘we’re worked to death’
“To tell you the truth, he thought quickly, everyone here wants to kill Almida and the sacristan.”
Slowly Almida’s corruption is revealed, and his return becomes the focus of the novel’s tension. Rosero, of course, also has a wider target: the church itself, its leaders and its role in the community. While such satire might have a greater resonance in Catholic South America, this remains a haunting novel with a satisfying denouement: we might even consider that Tancredo will be able to reconcile the animal and intellectual sides of his character.