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By George Szanto
Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2001
ISBN: 1-894852-14-1
312 pages

Bob Corbett
September 2015

America journalist and political activist Jorge is invited to Mexico to publicize the case of Fr. Joaquin Chuscadon, a left-wing priest who has been arrested on what is claimed to be a trumped up charge of bank robbing. Jorge has just married and asks his new wife, and her 8 year old daughter, to join with him and they’d make this trip to Mexico as a joint honeymoon, working vacation. They agree and off they go.

Fr. Chuscadon had also recently written a book about an 18th century Mexican woman, the Condesa Victoria Ceruantes y Gazoponda. She is normally referred to as Maria Victoria. She is a fascinating woman whose beloved husband had died early and Maria Victoria took over the huge estate and many laborers who were dependent upon her. She’s a very strong woman, seemingly devoted to her Roman Catholic Church, but also quite interested in the near-magical properties of a body of water on their plantation which seems to emit magical powers. She leads women, especially, to this refuge for various ceremonies. Of course, this behavior is much deplored by the local clergy and even the high church officials. She’s always battling their interference in her life and her status as a Roman Catholic is in doubt.

Fr. Chuscadon, the author of this book about the 18the century condesa, is himself a left-wing activist and, like Maria Victoria is constantly in trouble with the church. However, that is not his only current problem, since as Jorge and his family journey to Mexico, the priest is in jail on a trumped-up charge of bank robbing.

Once Jorge, his wife Rissa and young daughter, Kiki, arrive they are plunged into the life of a relatively small town and the dilemma of Fr. Chuscadon’s arrest, but also there are some connections in the little town that seem to go back and make contact with the life and times of Maria Victoria. On what was once her property a once Roman Catholic utopian group had purchased some property, built a closed society and gone far beyond standard Roman Catholic teaching, believing they had a special society which is soon to be taken into a heaven-like place to live on forever and be rewarded for their religious zeal. They have gone far beyond any standard notion of Catholicism, but are willing unto death to follow their dream and to expect their salvation.

Throughout the novel there is a back and forth narrative of the life and times of Maria Victoria and her family and community, and the current times with the drama centering on the fate of the jailed Fr. Chuscadon, and the esoteric religious group which is moving closer and closer to the time in which they are expected to be taken bodily as a group into this utopian universe beyond Earth and time in which they believe.

The connection between these two worlds is quite tenuous. The connection seems to be three-fold:

  1. The imprisoned priest, Fr. Chuscadon has written his book about Maria Victoria’s life, times and plantation.
  2. The utopian Christian-like community is on her property and there are some hints that it is believed that there is some spiritual connection to Maria Victoria’s life and times.
  3. The utopian community has arrived at the time in which they think God is coming down to this tiny rural community to bodily assume them all into heaven.

The structure of the novel is a huge set of back and forth stories of the two different time periods. Each individual story is gripping and fascinating. However, I was NEVER really convinced of any significant connection between the two worlds and thus I felt like I was reading to very different novels, happening to be situated in the same geographical place, but, otherwise, not really much connected. I tried to read the novel as though there were some connection or soon to come, but it just never worked for me.

However, I did enjoy EACH of the two stories in its own time frame and I think I would much have preferred to have read two different novels, one the story of Maria Victoria’s life and times, and the other, the contemporary story of Fr. Chuscadon’s arrest and the American author, Jorge’s coming to the village to write the story and his wife and daughter having been caught up in the developments both with Fr. Chuscadon’s situation and the utopian community in the near-by countryside.

Each story is gripping and well-told, but the connection between the two to justify this as a single novel just never was convincing to me.

Of the two stories I was most gripped by Maria Victoria’s life and especially her life on an uncomfortable spiritual edge in which she’s both attracted to the Roman Catholic “story” of history, and the power and weight of her attraction to the local ideas of the unknown and the particular powers of the waters of her secret and private lake and finally the sort of “religious” community she herself leads for the peasants who have accepted Maria Victoria’s belief in the spiritual power of the lake.

I was also delighted by the fact that her beloved husband, Gonzalo, dies fairly young, but continues to visit with her, and later even with some of his children, after he has died. He is a delightful presence, adding to the eeriness of this story of Maria Victoria’s special religious connection to the mysterious lake.

Further, a son Gonzalo had in his earlier days in Spain, is sent to find his father and ends up falling in love with his step-mother after Gonzalo dies. Great stuff.

However, the story of the contemporary times, the life and times of Father Chuscadon, and his interest in Maria Victoria, and then the connection to the very strange religious community was all just a bit too much. I followed different lines of this story

  1. The strangeness of Chuscadon’s fixation with Maria Victoria
  2. The priest’s connection to and the very existence of the odd community of people awaiting eternal salvation in this miraculous manner.
  3. The story of Chuscadon and his sister’s work with the local poor (that was the most believable part of this section of the novel).

However, it was just all too much to fit together in any coherent or believable manner.

Further, the ending of that last part of the novel – the time for the utopian community to fulfill its purpose and to go and join God forever, was just so absurdly over the top to make it more laughable than tense and exciting as it was supposed to be.

Despite these quibbles I believe there are quite serious weaknesses in the vision and plan of the novel, I very much enjoyed it piece by piece, at least until the very end. The last few pages of the drama of the community expecting to be taken up to God, was more a funny parody of that theme than an exciting or frightening event which I think it was meant to be.

Nonetheless, I had fun, and often couldn’t wait to get back into the novel, hoping I would be gifted with another fairly long section of Maria Victoria’s story.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett