Stealing Fatima

    A Book Review by Katherine Vaz in Provincetown Arts 2010

FRANK X. GASPAR, an award-winning poet (his most recent volume is the radiant, moonlight-drenched Night of a Thousand Blossoms) and novelist (Leaving Pico), is a native son of Provincetown, and his latest novel, Stealing Fatima, is a wrenchingly grace-filled Valentine to a vanishing world, elegiac and aching but also clear-eyed in its portraits. It’s a book based upon real love, in other words: Its gaze is held steady at people as they truly are, with their moribund dreams and unfailing hopes, and at a place for what it is.

The story moves with the verve of a high-literary mystery novel, with secrets and betrayals and fast-clip action, while the prose’s heart anchors it in lyrical richness and exquisite detailing: What rings through is a near-heartbreaking affection for the Portuguese-American enclave that once upon a time was so strong that Provincetown was referred to as the “Tenth Island.” (There are nine major islands in the Azores.) It is significant that the setting is obviously Provincetown, but the town’s name never appears, as if its Portuguese/ Azorean heyday is so long in the grave that it’s scarcely an echo of the Luso community that the Townies remember. Many of the “People from Away” who reside there, though, fit right in now. Mariah, who crashed into town on a Piper plane, lives with her partner, Winslow, and has pushed out the vindictive old biddy, Mrs. Horta, who used to rule the roost at the Our Lady of Fatima rectory. Mariah’s crash is both divine-seeming and dangerous; many characters are like angels prone to falling, landing with their wings on fire. And that Mariah insists upon belonging to a church where her homosexuality might be problematic further cements a new order of things.

Owning the center of Gaspar’s novel is Father Manuel Furtado, whose solitary nights involve gin and pills (he rationalizes that this treats a Vietnam wartime injury, his own plane mishap), as he writes literally feverishly—confessionally—in ledgers. The story’s catalyst is embodied in Sarafino Pomba (suggesting a seraph, and pomba means “dove” or “paraclete”), one of Father Furtado’s long-lost friends, returning as he’s dying of AIDS and fleeing an arrest warrant thanks to a botched liquor store heist with addled friends. This bears a remarkable resemblance to a defining incident in their boyhood, when their last night before shipping out separately for Vietnam involved getting sky-high on Benzedrine and kidnapping the magnificent statue of Our Lady of Fatima from the church. (“Furtado” is a common Portuguese surname, but furtar is also a verb meaning “to steal, nab, pilfer.”)

Though this drug-fueled act smacks of being a prank, it also represented Manny striking out at his fisherman father, a man of such dimensions that he’s called Father by the community. (No accident, Manny’s sister Alzaida later points out, that Manny chose the career path of a Father.) That Manny hasn’t completely formulated his motives when he steals the statue funded by his father and other parishioners gives impetus to an inquiry into the consequences and far-reaching implications of every action, hidden or not, fully realized or knee-jerk. The statue itself displays in Her face “a compassion that was so heightened that such an expression would never be found in life. . . . a smile, yes, but with such sadness behind it.” A lovely riff on the Portuguese sensibility of saudade, sweet mournfulness, gentle sorrow toward what is simultaneously absent and present.

The night in question goes awry when they drag the statue out to the woods to bury it but run into a soused Old Man Coelho in the cemetery. Sarafino, clowning around, curses him. Coelho is found collapsed in a dead heap—surely from chronic drunkenness and a failing heart?— by morning. Sarafino and Manny ship out and lose track of one another for years.

Gaspar has a poet’s sensibility but also a master storyteller’s deftness. The plot courses along with swift, implacable force; there are twists and turns so riveting that a full summation would ruin what a reader will be astonished to discover on his or her own. The story brims with secrets that, spilling over, cause tidal waves. Everyone turns out to be inextricably bound to each other. Alzaida and her husband, Tommy, a fisherman still taking out his deceased father-in-law’s boat, have their marital troubles laid bare; Mariah and Winslow have a hand in the ongoing fate of the statue. The ironically named Father John Sweet, pompous and with an ambitious eye trained upon garnering his own seaside parish, plays a fine villain investigating Father Manny’s addictions. Manny steadfastly lies that his alcohol and drug abuse, an open secret from his past, no longer haunts him.

Stealing Fatima offers the daring premise that in this era of flippant apologies, unexamined acts, or escape as the all-purpose American solution to problems, there’s also a physical, spiritual, and moral plane where true atonement, inescapable facing of actions, must be played out. Even if the understanding or reckoning is years or a lifetime in the making. If it is impossible to hide secrets—or one’s self—from an omnipresent God, then it is also folly to hope that one’s covert shame or sins fade away unnoticed. Sooner or later all will be revealed, all barriers torn down, all cowering will rot away the concealing walls, much as the Paraclete drove the Apostles out of their hiding after the Crucifixion. An accident involving Tommy sets off a series of explosive revelations. Father Manny descends into a personal hell, a spinning out of control, that guarantees his exposure. The parish and Our Lady of Fatima Church, much like the unnamed town itself, undergo a shocking transformation at the novel’s end, with Father Manny Furtado trapped bodily and spiritually within it. The book rises to a crescendo with an act of reclamation that shimmers, leading to a coda as ethereally beautiful as one can hope to read and that reminds us of literature’s own moving, redemptive powers.

Every page holds gems of description, from the (archaic) typewriter, “thick as some primitive engine block,” to phrases such as “some scaffold within him collapsed.” Piles of clothing are “days-deep.” Those of us whose childhoods recall Luso-American festivals will delight in revisiting suspiros and malassadas sold in booths at festivals, will laugh at Alzaida’s chiding about her father’s “puffed-up Portagee” bombast (though the book, as with any story of an immigrant culture, can be enjoyed by anyone). The texture of the writing is deep, a work of art: When Tom sets out to repair the rectory, clear the squirrels’ nests, fix the rafters, sweep the place out of its stupor, it recalls Ursula the matriarch’s adamant upkeep of her household in One Hundred Years of Solitude as crucial to survival. (And while Tom is “fixing things,” he walks past where the ominous Father Sweet, referred to as the “Fixer,” is making Father Manny squirm.) One chapter opens with a repeated refrain of “He did not believe . . .” that creates a type of Reverse Credo. The ledgers that Father Manny uses were left behind by his predecessor, Father Teofilo Braga, who bears the name of a nineteenth- century Azorean writer whose dreams of justice were realized when he became President of the Provisional Government in Portugal after the collapse of the monarchy. There are shades of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” in Father Manny’s desire to dare a single drink so the idea of alcohol doesn’t grow too large.

The novel isn’t afraid to address the role of shame in the human condition, much as we try to argue that it’s better left to our grandparents or parents. It can be interpreted that the price of failing to bridge the gap between who we truly are and the face we present to the world is a ravaging, ashamed emptiness, a theme that arises repeatedly. Even at a moment of relative ease, Father Manny jars us by reporting that he “. . . felt liked and admired, but the feeling did not go into him very deeply.” Sarafino’s own emptiness is often described, and his room is referred to as an “empty nest.” In order to close that gap between the obvious and the hidden, we’re asked to question our notions of what constitutes criminality, versus what might be a challenging, creative response. An act that is criminal by definition caps the plot, but it is healing and necessary. It happens to require concealment; life is complex enough to ask us to distinguish what should be announced from what needs honorable subterfuge. Stealing Fatima seems to embrace the truths contained within Simone Weil’s essay on “Affliction,” that spiritual oppression must, sooner or later, take the form of social alienation and then — crucially — physical ailment. The final pages contain the remarkable assertion (referring to priests on retreat to cure despair, loss of faith, or addiction) that “The brothers of Saint Matthew of the Mount saw such despair not as a sin but as a kind of suffering, and the order recognized such suffering as a holy state and therefore redemptive.” It’s wonderfully audacious to implore readers to note and embrace and forgive suffering, since we live in a climate of shrugging off or despising our own as well as the world’s. The novel’s considerable achievement is that we read the pages eager to find out what happens next, while what we are mining are the human foibles that are, finally, inseparable from grace, inseparable from the redemption of what we have been, what we are now, what we will always be.

KATHERINE VAZ, a former Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute, is the author of the novels Saudade and Mariana (published in six languages and selected by the Library of Congress as one of the Top Thirty International Books of 1998). Her collection Fado & Other Stories won the 1997 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and Our Lady of the Artichokes received the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She was a member of the six-person Presidential Delegation sent to the World’s Fair/Expo 98 in Lisbon and was a 2002 Portuguese–American Woman of the Year.

 

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