Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”
Tancredo and Father Almida not only work at the church but live in its presbytery, along with Machado, the sacristan; Sabina, Machado’s goddaughter; and “the three Lilias,” a clutch of women who run the household and who have come to resemble one another so closely that they go by the same name. The novel opens on a Thursday afternoon, “when it’s the old people’s turn” to be served lunch, and Tancredo has just finished kicking out the last of the diners. The anger he feels at their insistence on remaining in the church hall long past the end of the meal stirs in him “a terrible fear of being an animal,” although he is for the most part a mild-mannered, studious, and obedient servant of the church.
Beyond its opening pages, however, this short novel barely concerns Tancredo’s primary job. We witness a meeting at which Father Almida informs Tancredo that, starting Monday, the sacristan of the church will begin assisting Tancredo with the lunches, but after this scene nothing more about the meals is mentioned, which is a disappointment—and an oddity, considering that the Spanish title of Good Offices is Los almuerzos (“the lunches”).
Sabina, who lusts after Tancredo and has been waiting for a chance to be alone with him, is excited when Father Almida and her godfather are called away Thursday evening on a mysterious errand to dissuade Don Justiniano, the church’s main financial benefactor, from withdrawing his largesse on the basis of unspecified “lies” purportedly being spread by other priests in the city about the church’s use of Don Justiniano’s funds. But ultimately it is the three Lilias, not Sabina, who take the most pleasure from what transpires in the two men’s absence.
The book’s plot turns out to be built on an archetype: the arrival of a charismatic stranger who forever changes the life of a small, well-ordered community. Father Matamoros appears during a rainstorm to fill in for Father Almida at seven o’clock Mass. In contrast to Almida’s plainspoken efficaciousness, Matamoros is dreamy and poetic (and fond of drink—he swigs aguardiente during the service). But what most endears him to the evening parishioners is that he sings the Mass rather than speaks it, in a voice of great beauty and devotion:
Beneath the cold vaulted reaches, his voice seemed to come from heaven. He repeated his invitation to repent, singing: Beloved brethren, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins. It was as if the organ were sounding. Tancredo lifted his gaze to the marble dome as if escaping and saw the host of painted angels flying among the clouds; he saw them return his gaze and still did not know whether to feel terrified or moved. How long it had been, he thought, since Mass had been sung. The purity of the voice was the air they breathed.
After this miracle of a Mass, the Lilias immediately and passionately ingratiate themselves with Matamoros, making him comfortable, bringing him food and drink and fawning over his talents. But the Mass of Father Matamoros also unleashes something disturbingly otherworldly in them, inspiring them (among other unusual behaviors) to conduct a bizarre and violent ritual in the church garden. Through the night and into the early hours of Friday, their power and ferocity grow to such an extent that not even Father Almida and Machado, when they return from their errand the next morning, are safe from it.
As difficult as it is to describe exactly what has happened to the Lilias, it is even more difficult to speculate about the significance Rosero ascribes to it. New Directions’ fall catalog states that Good Offices is a “beautifully poetic and vivid satire of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church,” but the stability that Matamoros and the Lilias upset seems composed of far murkier and much more poorly explained elements than mere religious hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the fervor of the Lilias themselves that is being satirized, but again, if so, Rosero is being far vaguer about his targets than true satire demands.
Further, at the end of the novel Rosero seems to be taking pains to cast Tancredo and Sabina as some kind of modern Adam and Eve, but over what new paradise (or hell?) they are to supposed to reign Rosero does not specify. We finish the book feeling we have experienced something unsettling, but unsure what, and still wondering what is to become of those daily free lunches we read about at the start.