Man in Black

Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review

Paintings, sculptures and other relics of the European past are potent time capsules. They pulse and glow with the fiery passions that created them and can overwhelm the modern admirer's senses. If that person happens to be a millionaire, the sight of a Michelangelo or Rubens might move him to become a collector. But if the admirer is a psychopath, such art may inspire him to take an ordinary murder and give it enough gothic twists to make Edgar Allan Poe or Cesare Borgia envious.

In his first novel, "The Flanders Panel," Arturo Perez-Reverte considered the sinister influences of art. A restorer finds a question hidden in a 15th century painting of a game of chess: "Who killed the knight?" The riddle drives her to untangle the relationships of the people depicted and solve a 400-year-old mystery. At the same time, however, somebody else is playing the game shown in the painting and, one by one, eliminating the restorer's friends. Perez-Reverte's subsequent books have also focused on an enigmatic work of art, which has become his trademark.

"The Seville Communion" focuses attention on the powers exerted by an old baroque Spanish church in modern-day Seville. Here real estate interests face religious ones in a deadly tug of war with supernatural overtones. Not as tightly wound as in Perez-Reverte's past novels, the plot turns instead to a question much larger than a whodunit: What happens when faith degenerates into obsession?

"The Seville Communion" follows the efforts of a Vatican diplomat named Lorenzo Quart, who is sent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding Our Lady of the Tears. Crumbling in a quiet square, Our Lady is on the verge of being secularized and sold to the powerful Cartujano Bank. But there are problems. Two priests have died there in recent months: One was crushed by falling mortar, another fell from a scaffold. An unsettling message comes from a computer hacker who has broken into the pope's personal file: The church must be saved, it says, adding that Our Lady is "a church that kills to defend itself."

But he is the wrong person for this assignment. A holy warrior who has proved himself on missions to South America and Bosnia, Quart is entering middle age, and Perez-Reverte casts him as a priest whose fervency has cooled. At one point, after seeing his lean, chaste body in a mirror, he falls on his bed and sinks into "a quiet, desperate sadness." Vatican envoys, lacking the roots of a parish priest, are drifters, and sharp pangs of loneliness are welling up in him.

On his first day in Seville, Quart enters the mysterious church. Looking up at the vault, he doesn't sense any supernatural menace, nor can he find the artistic glories of the past, just the effects of time: "The elliptical dome, surrounded by a blind lantern, was decorated with frescoes that had been almost completely obliterated by smoke from the candles and by fire. . . . [H]e could just make out a few angels, and some bearded prophets covered with patches of mold that made them look like lepers."

The altarpiece gives the church its name--a statue of the Holy Mother wears a blue mantle inset with 20 gleaming pearls. The tragic story behind the pearls' origins is hypnotizing, especially to Quart. This early scene in the church offers a splendid metaphor for Quart's inner struggle: a church structure and a priestly vocation, collapsing together. His crisis looms over the entire story and has a decided impact on its outcome.

On one side of the conflict over the fate of Our Lady of the Tears are the high-powered banker Pencho Gavira, who wants to sell the church property in a deal that will clinch him the Cartujano chairmanship, and the Catholic Church, which has been promised a new church in another location and a big donation ("which is good, because nowadays the collection boxes in most parish churches aren't exactly overflowing," the sarcastic archbishop of Seville tells Quart).

On the other is the church's small group of supporters. They're hardly a force that can match the bank's resources and its allies: Father Priamo Ferro, Our Lady's explosive, stubborn pastor; Gris Marsala, an American nun determined to restore the church; the beautiful Macarena Bruner, Gavira's estranged wife; and her aging aristocratic mother, Cruz.

Yet the Bruners possess some leverage against the developers. The church contains their family crypt, and a nobleman ancestor buried there has been honored with a Mass every Thursday since 1687; as long as the practice continues, the land can never be secularized. Mother and daughter will not give in, nor will Ferro.

For much of "The Seville Communion," Quart faces angry confrontations as he searches for the hacker and gathers information. The deadlock between Gavira and the church's followers remains until two late-occurring events: a murder in the church and an attempted kidnapping of Ferro (orchestrated by Gavira) to prevent the Thursday service. The familiar gears of suspense start up, moving the narrative toward some satisfying revelations about the hacker and the cause of all three deaths.

The real pleasure of reading a Perez-Reverte story, however, comes from what he tells us about art in the Old World. His books are inevitably about processes. In "The Club Dumas," for instance, we're treated to a lengthy discussion about the forgery of old books and learn the arcane rules used by medieval wizards to summon the devil. Yet in "The Seville Communion," with its focus on a baroque church, the reader expecting to learn how an arch is set or about the vast system of symbolism used in building churches will be disappointed. For all of the antique settings and suspense, for all of the overtones of obsession and art, the most enigmatic object here is not the church, it's Quart. The mystery connecting the deaths with the hacker's message is eclipsed by the mystery of what made him become a man of the cloth.

"You're a good-looking priest," Marsala says, eyeing Quart's rugged features, his silk shirt and soft leather shoes. "You certainly know how to wear your clothes."

Macarena is equally attracted to Quart, particularly his calm air and gentle eyes. "I'm not as composed as you think," he assures her over dinner. She acts as his guide around the city. She provokes him with her body (her outfit "showed off legs that were too long and too shapely for the peace of mind of any priest") and with her questions: "You've never been with a woman?" Vulnerable to her, Quart still mounts an able defense. If you're unhappy in your marriage, he asks, picking her own vulnerable spot, "why don't you ask for a divorce?" Her reply is immediate, as well as predictable, "Because I'm a Catholic." Perez-Reverte's depiction of their flirtation has the sound of a heated catechism drill.

Ferro is less congenial, scowling at this priest-diplomat. "How could somebody like you help me?" he growls at their first meeting. "What this church needs is a different kind of help, and you haven't brought any of it in those elegant pockets of yours."

Later, the two call a truce in a tower used by Ferro as an observatory. Quart takes a liking to this gruff old man. Watching the stars has turned Ferro into something of an existential philosopher. "What do our miserable little lives and desires mean?" he asks Quart, anguished. "Your report to Rome, the church, the Holy Father, you and I, what does all this matter to those lights?"

Ferro's cynicism only adds to Quart's confusion. Just when he seeks a display of fatherly wisdom, he gets Ferro's version of "Being and Nothingness."

Other shocks occur. Quart learns from Macarena of another Bruner ancestor who went mad waiting for her lover to come home from the sea. The sailor returned too late, and his gift of a string of pearls went to decorate the church's Virgin. The story jolts Quart because it echoes his own fisherman father's loss during a storm at sea.

Perez-Reverte paints a sorrowful picture of that moment in Quart's childhood: waves crashing on a dock; a small boy, like a little pantheist, praying to the sea to return his father. It was Quart's turning point: He "vowed that no one would ever stand in the rain waiting for him to return to port." Without a father, the firm guiding hands of the church steered him into the seminary. Perez-Reverte, like Macarena or Ferro, offers a jaded view of the priestly calling; there are no burning bushes or lightning flashes, only unfortunate circumstances, like a leaky fishing boat in a storm, that put excruciating pressures on the human heart.

Late in the story, the author's skill at delving into Old World practices is finally on display when Quart acts less like a diplomat and more like a priest. At a crucial moment, Perez-Reverte describes him dressing for Mass:

"He began with the amice, the strip of white cloth still worn only by very traditional or old priests like Father Ferro. Following the ritual, he kissed the Cross at its center before putting the amice over his shoulders and tying the ribbons behind his back. . . . He then took the wide band of white silk known as the stole and, having kissed the Cross at its center, put it on over the amice. At last he took the old white silk chasuble, with faded gold embroidery, and slipped it over his head. . . . Following the ritual, performed in the same way by others for almost two thousand years, diminished his sense of solitude."

There is magic in this ritual; the weight of tradition doesn't smother Quart, it renews him. And such a passage makes it clear that, unlike the books and paintings so meticulously described in Perez-Reverte's other novels, Our Lady is a red herring: The real object of mystery in "The Seville Communion" is a modern man who lives by a code of sacrifice and denial dating back thousands of years.

Our Lady's fate does fall into the hands of this troubled knight of the church. In the end, Quart learns that faith sometimes requires the breaking of one vow of obedience to keep another. Perez-Reverte's conclusions are intriguing, although he allows one question to remain: How can a gifted man give up the world? Considering that St. Augustine, Tolstoy and others spent their lives seeking the answer, Quart is in very good company at the story's end.

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