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The Seville Communion    by Arturo Pérez-Reverte order for
Seville Communion
by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 1999 (1998)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Mystery fans looking for a change from the usual North American and British offerings will find a real treat in The Seville Communion by Spanish author Pérez-Reverte. He writes intelligent and thought-provoking mysteries in Spanish, some of which have been translated into English.

This book is set in beautiful, atmospheric Seville. The main character, handsome, engimatic priest Lorenzo Quart, is sent there by the Vatican's Institute of External Affairs after someone (nicknamed Vespers) managed to hack into the Pope's personal computer. Vespers keeps posting emails about the beleagured Our Lady of the Tears church in Seville, where two people have recently died accidental (?) deaths. The church is in poor shape, in danger of being demolished and the land turned over to developers. Vespers claims that the deaths are the work of the church protecting its precarious future.

So the Vatican's top sleuth must investigate. Quart soon becomes enmeshed in a web of church and city politics and encounters a raft of well-drawn, fascinating characters. These include the hapless trio of Don Ibrahim, a fake lawyer with claims of a heroic past in Hemingway's Cuba; the not too bright failed bullfighter El Potro; and faded one-time singer La Nina. They have a 'touching friendship which had sustained the three companions through the endless hangover of their lives'. They are hired to keep track of Quart by banker Pencho Gavira who stands to do very well if the church is torn down. Their entertaining and touching adventures provide a welcome relief to the generally darker story.

Other key characters are the seductive Macarena, estranged wife of Gavira, whose family has long supported the church. Then there's Gris Marsala, an unusual American nun, whose crisis of faith has sent her to Seville where she is attempting to restore some of the church's paintings. There is also Father Ferro Priamo, the rough and resentful priest who wants nothing to do with Quart and the Vatican, but only to minister to his flock and protect his beloved church, feeling that 'every church closed or lost is a piece of heaven that disappears'. Quart himself is a memorable character. Scrupulous to duty and extremely disciplined, his self-control is a source of pride to him as he thinks of himself as a modern Knight Templar. The church provided a sense of security for him during his difficult and impoverished childhood, but now he is fighting his own crisis of faith. Some of the most interesting dialogue in the book is between Quart and Father Ferro about life and religion.

After struggling with him for most of the book about the mysterious deaths, Quart finds himself agreeing with the Father when Ferro says 'How to preserve, then the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and he also knows that, unlike kings, popes and generals, he'll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.' Later he adds 'We're the old, patched drum skin on which the glory of God still thunders. We (the priests) know the angel who holds the key to the abyss.' Such strong and moving words elevate this book above the norm and leave a long-lasting impression on the reader.

As Quart becomes more involved in the mystery, he finds himself increasingly on the side of the church and its supporters, in opposition to the local archbishop and business interests. He learns from Macarena of an old love story about her ancestor Carlota, who fell in love with the sailor Xlaloc. When he sailed away to fight in the Spanish-American War she wrote to him every day, but her family held back her letters and intercepted his letters to her. Heartbroken, she eventually went mad, and when he returned with a necklace of pearls for her she did not even recognize him. So he donated the pearls to the church where where they were incorporated in the painting of the lady with tears.

Quart is also bewitched by Macarena herself and his self-control finally fails him. By the end, the murders and the identity of Vespers are no longer very important to him, but rather he wonders how he will continue to lead his life and whether the church can be saved. Unfamiliar Spanish names and numerous characters make The Seville Communion difficult reading at times. It also proceeds at a slow pace, like a leisurely Spanish day with siesta. However, it is well-worth reading to appreciate the the characters, the Seville setting and the profound thoughts on life.

The author has written several more books since The Seville Communion. Unfortunately they are stand-alone novels, so Quart does not appear in them. It seems such a shame that we will not be able to spend more time with him, but at least we have this book to savor.

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