Good Offices, By Evelio Rosero trans. Anne McLean with Anna Milsom

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At the 1965 Bishops' Conference in Medellin, Colombia, the most interesting Christian theology of the 20th century was formulated. "Liberation Theology" stated as non-negotiable the internal democratisation of Church structures along with the "option for the poor", which depended on identifying with the exploited and marginalised. It brought about the violent deaths of dozens of priests and thousands of secular "bearers of the Word" (the literate catechists who shared the life of the indigent ) in civil and Contra-backed wars throughout Latin America. Their legacy was an – often highly politicised - commitment to peace, prayer and poverty.

"The Poor" in receipt of Good Offices in the Colombian writer Evelio Rosero's novel are invited to weekday lunches at an old-fashioned refectory. They come on a rota: prostitutes on Monday; the blind on Tuesday; street kids on Wednesday. Weekends are kept free for God. Tradition is all, or perhaps this is mere regimentation?

Tancredo administers this food to the body. He is the young hunchback whose charity is rewarded with a roof over his head - and intermittent sex beneath the altar with Sabina Cruz, the sacristan's daughter. The greater a character's social status, the more louche their behaviour.

The cast is completed by a wealthy parish benefactor, Don Justiniano, and a locum priest and drunkard, Father Matamoros. His angelic voice charms those commonly known in Latin America as las beatas, devout (and single) ladies of a certain age who make the church their social as well as spiritual home. Three, known as las Lilias, respond with exotically tempting dishes of rabbit and venison, fit for a banquet of the most carnal variety.

Unity of place is matched by that of time. The book takes place over a long night – not of the soul but of carnival. Characters inhabit a medieval world, sealed from modernity within church and presbytery. This is less a satire on Colombian politics than on the Universal Church. The present Pope Benedict would, one suspect, easily recognise the fusty narrowness alternating with libidinous excess that marks such an unhealthy introversion. It also works as a parable of Colombia. With its waste of grandeur in a sea of bloody tragedy, this is a theme already richly explored in Rosero's earlier novel, The Armies.

Like The Armies, winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Good Offices has the atmosphere of a stage set on which the characters fulfil the established roles of a Commedia dell' Arte. Despite the air of sacrilege and saturnalia, none is seriously bad, just all-too-human.

In this impeccable English version by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, only the title seems a bit of a misnomer. The original Los Almuerzos – "Dinners" - well suits an action dedicated to feeding supposedly spiritual but in practice merely carnal appetites. If an alternative is to be chosen, why not the scandalous "Holy Offices" here under scrutiny?

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at UEA, Norwich