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by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Harcourt Brace, May 1999
375 pages
ISBN: 0156006391

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This is a a good book. Perez-Reverte has been called Spain's most popular author. From the glowing review excerpts included, we might think that he is one of the most popular authors with American reviewers, too, dozens of them. Just to quote from two: "A superbly entertaining and intricate thriller which confirms the author's growing reputation as the thinking man's Robert Ludlum" (Kirkus), and "Recounted with panache and subtlety {it] is one of those infrequent whodunits that transcend the genre" (Time).

It has virtually everything. It moves fast to keep you reading. Intricate, fascinating plot with intimate details of the working of the Catholic Church. It paints Seville so beautifully that you can hardly wait for your next opportunity to get there. Good, clever humor. Provocatively clever sex. And for those who love character, every character in the book is loaded with character.

The protagonist is Father Lorenzo Quart, a trouble-shooter for the Vatican's Institute of External Affairs (read, intelligence service). Tall, handsome, immaculately dressed, intelligent, loyal, he has the reputation of being a headhunter. At one point he's compared to Richard Chamberlain in THE THORN BIRDS. Elsewhere he's called "a priest who thinks he's Humphrey Bogart." His female counterpoint is Macarena, heiress to one of Spain's oldest dukedoms, beautiful, temptingly sexy, and separated from her husband, but not from lovers, yet she is also a passionately crusader on behalf on the elderly, lonely, courageous Father Priamo Ferro, the pastor of the little half-in-ruins Church of Our Lady of the Tears in central Seville, which is the bone that everyone is contending for in the story. She lives with her mother, the Duchess, survivors of a world which is disappearing as they watch. The others defending the small church are Gris, a middle aged American nun who has dispensation to live outside her order, and the young Father Oscar, assistant to Father Ferro. Two men have recently met violent deaths in that church, and there will be a third to follow.

Pencho Gavira, whom Macarena will not divorce because she is strongly Catholic, is vice president of a bank and wants desperately to succeed the retiring chairman. Many on the bank's board are waiting to devour him, and he knows he must succeed in getting the small church sold to the bank for an ambitious development deal if he is to be a hero instead of a bum. He is not fussy about the means, nor is his henchman Peregil.

Peregil uses a trio of stooges to carry our his dirty work, but what a scene-stealing over-the-hill trio of humanity's dregs. The leaders is big fat Don Ibrahim, "the former fake lawyer" who is happiest smoking his Havana cigar and recalling all the good old days when he was in Cuba and friends with such luminaries as Mexican movie queen Maria Felix, who gave him an ebony walking stick with silver handle. He recalls the night when she slept with Ibrahim and was unfaithful to Agustin Lara [composer of Granada]. And Don Ibrahim talks of his meetings with Orson and Rita, who gave him his penknife, and he recalls being coached by Don Ernesto Hemingway in Havana's Florida Bar, and his happy occasions with all the others. The trouble is that Don Ibrahim has two parts, one real and one imaginary, and over the years they have merged inseparably.

Don Ibrahim's cohorts are El Potro de Mantelete, a punchdrunk ex-torero, prizefighter, soldier, and idiot whose brain "ran on fixed rails," and La Nina Punales (last two "ns" have tildes), a Flamenco singer-dancer of many years past, who still spends life singing to herself and taking care of Ibrahim and Potro. These three foul up(sometimes almost hysterically) at every opportunity, yet they are endearing because they truly love, respect, and have genuine compassion for each other. Somehow they remind me of Brueghel's painting The Blind Leading the Blind.

The story begins with a hacker, called Vespers, breaking into the Vatican's computer system and putting a message on the Pope's personal computer. Vespers mentions the threats to the small Seville church and warns that that church will kill to defend itself. Father Quart is sent to investigate. The Archbishop of Seville not only is on the other side from Father Ferro and Macarena, but also has a grudge against Quart for one of his earlier headhunting exploits. Quart, whose orders are just to report the facts, not to take sides, finds himself truly in the middle with both sides who have such passionate interest in the small church's future looking on him as an enemy. The ultimate discovery of the hacker and murderer (I'm deliberately ambiguous here so as not to give away whether it is one or two people) is an eye-opener.

There's much humor in the book, as well as clever crafting of phrases. At one point the tall, eminently well-dressed Quart with immaculately tailored black suit and black silk shirt with Roman collar is likened to "a basketball player in mourning clothes by Armani." In describing Seville, Perez-Reverte refers over and over and over to orange blossoms and fragances till you get the impression that he's thinking in terms of homeric apposites and your mind sees "orange-fragranced Seville."

The one scene that had me guffawing was on p. 231, when Macarena takes a walk at night with Quart and steers him past her separated husband's tavern haunt, where the husband is found on the outside terrace with a TV model for bras. "Gavira hated tall men. Particularly when they were quite openly walking through Seville in the evening with his wife. He wondered whether people would disapprove if he punched a priest in the face outside a bar." Gavira must be circumspect because a scandal could ruin his church deal and cost him the chairmanship of the bank. He tries to hold himself in check. But the words come out of his mouth even as he regrets saying each one of them. Talking to Macarena, who recently had her photograph in sexually embarrassing poses with a bullfighter in a scandal newspaper, Gavira says, "You go out with priests now, do you?" Everyone's watching, but it was as if someone else were speaking his words. Again he regrets it even as he's saying it, but he can't help himself as he asks Quart, "How's the celibacy going, Father?"

But the real story is more than the survival of an old church, rather it is a question of faith, and as we go along we wonder just how much faith each person really has. The title in English, THE SEVILLE COMMUNION, is appropriate, but I always prefer staying with an author's title. In this case, it's LA PIEL DE TAMBOR (The Skin of the Drum), and the author's intent is shown in a few lines on p. 215, when Father Ferro tells Father Quart that he's fighting not because he has faith, but because he cares about the humble relatively few people who continue to attend his church because they have faith. "Priests like me are still needed ... We're the old patched drum skin on which the glory of God still thunders."

If there is a fault in the book, either in the original or the translation, it's partly an editing problem. Repetitions galore, but also with many words and phrases that just look wrong. On p. 78 Quart tells his superior, as they stand on the Spanish Steps in Rome, that he resists sexual sin by "prayer and cold showers," but on p. 158 Quart when faced with temptation recalls that it's his superior on the Spanish Steps recommending to Quart "prayer and cold showers." Reference to "a shield" in a shell game makes me wonder if the word really should not be "shill," as the context suggests. "Scottish malt whiskey?" -- most people would have said "Scotch." "Tiara" is used in ways you don't hear it in English.

But those faults, to my mind, are mere trifles compared to the richness of this book. Wonderfully written. I wish there were more writers like Perez-Reverte.

Reviewer's Note: This book was originally published in 1995. Translated from Spanish to English by Sonia Soto

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, August 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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