Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Translation of Father Torturo, Brendan Connell

Father Xaviero Torturo is, like many of the protagonists in Connell's later collection Unpleasant Tales, a man obsessed with change, though the changes he desires extend beyond himself and into the world in which he lives. He is a priest who, tired of being "the begrimed receptacle" for the offences of others, applies the philosophy, dedication and ruthlessness of the family trade – assassination – to his work.

"As a child he had been brutal, a kicker of cats, a resolute swatter of flies..." His parents savagely murdered, this boy is taken in by Uncle Guido, their avenger, a kindly murderer who would see him enter the church. Torturo's education is thus entrusted to cigar-fancier Father Falzon, who encourages the young prodigy to read very widely, and gives him a piece of deathbed advice: "Don't give yourself away. Not until you have them check-mated."

As Torturo's career within the church first falters, and then progresses at pace, he follows that advice to the letter, even withholding his plans from the reader. Though we are able to guess his intended destination – "playing the faithful servant", he hopes to "usurp the master" – his purpose and methods remain obscure. This allows us to appreciate the fruition of his plans all the more.

I almost felt as if I should have read this book in French – it reminded me very much of reading Gide. I can easily imagine it in Gallimard's Collection Folio alongside books like Les caves du Vatican. Perhaps that stems from the shared subject matter – Catholicism and amorality – but I think also there's a similarity of tone and a similar intellectualism.

The book's dedication nods to another gay writer of that period, Baron Corvo, on whose Hadrian VII this is roughly patterned. This novel could perhaps be criticised for its portrayal of homosexuals – Bishop Vivan, an early ally of Father Torturo, is something of a giggly, effete stereotype – though a defence is that the main characters, good and bad, are Catholic priests, not generally an occupation in which you would expect to find healthy, happy gay men.

The Translation of Father Torturo dates back to 2005 but is now available for the first time on Kindle, published I think by the author; a few typos and formatting glitches did no real harm. Some Roman Catholics might be pleased by its assumption or at least implication that the sacred relics of the saints hold actual, magical power; others might choose to find the perverted, corrupt priests that populate the book offensive. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this provocative and grimly amusing book to everyone else.

The Translation of Father Torturo, Brendan Connell, Kindle, 3417ll.


  1. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for the review. I usually make a point of not commenting directly on reviews, but thought I should address your point about its portrayal of homosexuals.

    In most of my books there are openly gay characters. They are often not terribly pleasant people. But very few of my characters are. So I think they are consitent with the tone of the book.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Brendan!

    I do take your point, of course. The equivalent heterosexual priest in your novel is just as bad - the difference perhaps for me is that he doesn't conform quite as much to a pre-existing negative stereotype.

    I suppose the question would be, if Bishop Vivan was removed from the context of your novel, and your body of work, and dropped into, say, a Mel Gibson film, would the character attract adverse comment?

    Maybe that's an unfair test, but that's the kind of thing I'm getting at, in my clumsy way.

    Please do bear in mind that I said the novel could perhaps be criticised, not the writer. I acknowledge that the way a novel coalesces in the mind of the reader doesn't necessarily bear much relation to what the author might have expected. That's quite possibly the case here; for example the repeated use of "giggled" for him might bring to mind quite different images for me from those it would for you.

  3. Well, Mel Gibson wouldn't have him in his film. Also, in Torturo, there are other gay characters, such as Dario, who are quite normal and do not giggle. There are always dangers of stereotypes in writing. Many writers go out of their way to avoid them. Personally, I don't worry too much about it and just let things fall into place as they will. I wrote Torturo very quickly – in 3 months, not working on it every day. The characters were not intended to be realistic, nor was the novel. Strangely enough, the only criticism I heard previous to this was about the dog being killed!

    But back to stereotypes. Have you seen the film Mine Vaganti by Ferzan Ozpetek, a gay Turkish/Italian director? I think there are five gay characters in the movie. Some of them are not “stereotypes” but one of them very much is. Maybe because stereotypes are simply exagerations of types, and in film and books the creator often brings them out, because exagerating certain characteristics is part of the process. For the same reason if you look at the old plays of Ben Jonson, you will see that every character is in fact a stereotype.

    Many writers who have come out of workshops and the like have been taught to go out of their way to not use stereotypes etc. Strangely enough however such writing often has a “sameness” to it and is covered with the author's fingerprints—you can see them creating “believable characters” and “original ideas”. In the end such things unfortunately come out to be rather studied and not too amusing.

  4. That certainly wasn't the case here - it was a very amusing novel, and a very vigorous, energetic one, perhaps reflecting how quickly you wrote it.

    It's left me very keen to return to Gide's work, though it's been such a long time that I'll need to install a French dictionary in the Kindle to make sense of it!

    I'm also intrigued by Baron Corvo, who I hadn't heard of before.