Mário de Carvalho: Um Deus Passeando pela Brisa da Tarde (A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening)
Set in the fictitious city of Tarcisis, located in what is now Portugal, this novel takes place around 179-180 AD. Marcus Aurelius is emperor in distant Rome. The fictitious Lucius Valerius Quintus is, at the start of the novel, one of two duumvirs (a pair of Roman magistrates) but, when the second one dies, Lucius is asked to carry out the duties on his own, as it is felt a second one is not necessary for the time being. He is also a keen admirer of Marcus Aurelius.
Lucius has several problems. Firstly, there is the ambitious Rufus Glycinius Cardelius, whom Lucius despises both because he is only a freedman but also because he is a political opportunist. Then, there is his wife, Mara, who, to his annoyance, insists on addressing him as friend and who seems to know everything before he does. Then there are his colleagues, who seem to be only mildly interested in their responsibilities and leave everything to him, though they are quick to berate him if he does not do what they want. However, he faces two main problems. Firstly, the Moors seem to be crossing over from Africa and pose a threat to Tarcisis. Unfortunately, no-one else seems to care, even though the walls are in poor shape and there is virtually no army to defend the city. Secondly, Maximus Cantaber, a man of a distinguished family and a friend of Lucius, has a daughter, Iunia, who has created a small sect of Christians, aided by a Syrian, Milquion. The problem this poses for Lucius is that they are victims of attacks by other citizens, including, in particular, Rufus Glycinius Cardelius, who sees the political opportunity of attacking the Christians and that they or, more particularly, Iunia, attack the immorality of Rome and predict its downfall, which does not go down well with Rufus and his friends.
Lucius, who is essentially a decent and well-meaning man, tries to act responsibly but gets caught up in the politics. Eventually, he is able to organise the city and hold back the Moors, who attack in force, till help arrives. However, there is a political cost, including the life of Maximus Cantaber’s other daughter, which leads to Maximus’ suicide. The Christians are more difficult. It is clear that his affections for Iunia go beyond the normal affection for the daughter of a friend. Though he remains a gentleman at all times, he does try to save her from what he sees as her folly, namely the desire for martyrdom. Though not a religious man himself, he clearly is bemused by this new religion, which he sees only as a transient one (all Iunia’s followers abandon the religion when they are faced with torture and death),
Ultimately, this is about a man who is good and decent and trying to follow the teachings of his emperor, who is caught up in politics and, ultimately, fails in his job, retreating to his country estate. For de Carvalho, it is clear that religion is not the answer – it only causes more problems – and that a decent man is probably not going to be able to survive in politics, in Portugal or elsewhere.
First published 1994 by Caminho
First English translation 1997 by Louisiana State University Press
Translated by Gregory Rabassa