Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (1963–65)
Recently I’ve read a number of works of fiction, written with a deceptive simplicity, so much so that one doesn’t realize at first how profound and skillfully constructed they are. Arthur Powers’ Padre Raimundo’s Army, a slim book of seventeen short stories set in Brazil from 1970 to the early 2000s is one such example.
A little backstory: Powers joined the Peace Corps in 1969 and ended up staying for forty years working primarily as a community organizer in rural Brazil. Except for a few years stateside earning a Harvard law degree he returned to Brazil for decades more work. He had arrived in-country as a religious agnostic and eventually found deep faith and an activist home in the Catholic church. He married a woman who was a community organizer in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. He in turn worked for many years as a human rights lawyer in Rio, followed by community organizing, and pastoral work in the Amazon.
In his own words he described the dangerous effort with the Catholic Church in the state of Tocantins as he organized rural community groups and workers’ unions supporting their land reform efforts in an area of violent land conflicts. As a result, Powers and his wife and their two children’s lives were at risk. They often discovered after the fact that members of the community had been so fearful of the threats against the family that they had had taken it upon themselves to protect the Powers in certain circumstances.
In an author’s note he describes the narratives in the volume as fiction, some of which are autobiographical, some as-told-to-him, but all as based in his experience. They range from the title story — “Padre Raimundo’s Army,” an almost biblical parable of political activism and religious faith, taking place in the northern Goiás state from 1931–1975; “Friar Robert’s Thief,” set in Rio in 1989, another parable, depicting the necessity of moral compromise through stealing, in order to do God’s work, to a long story; and “Carmelucia,” set in Rio de Janeiro, 1980, a narrative of fictional realism, about a young woman from the favelas who attempts to further herself through work, love, sex, and marriage.
As with all his stories, “Carmelucia” is unsentimental, but told with profound sentiment, yet never indulging in what I call the pornography of suffering. Carmelucia lives in a favela overlooking the city, the descriptions of which transported me back to my own Peace Corps site situated high above the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. She could be any of a number of young, aspiring women I knew in the barrio. When we meet her “the morning sun was already growing hot as she came back up the steps from the faucet carrying the heavy bucket . . . thirty-seven concrete steps . . . climbing straight, almost as steep as a ladder up the hillside. She had counted them ever since she could remember, and she hated them.”
Carmelucia is a smart determined young woman, whose dreams of escape from the poverty of her life, “had a geography all their own,” which included the sea in the distance, beyond the Botafogo Bay where “a tiny ship danced up and down on the blue water.” She imagined that there was a white man on that ship in a white uniform who was her father, of whom she had been told nothing by her mother “except that he was white and a sailor.” She adds the labyrinthian streets of the Copacabana to her geography of dreams, as she finds a position for herself in an upscale air-conditioned gift store which caters to foreigners and rich Brazilians, a quiet “chapel of tranquility,” from which to stage and achieve her dream of finding a white, rich man.
Enter Joao Luis, a rich white boy, who notices her for the dark-haired beauty she is. She knows how to handle him, and she does for a while thinking she has fooled him with her clever, elaborate cover of having him, before and after dates, drop her off outside an upscale apartment building. The affair continues until she becomes pregnant and her subterfuge is revealed, but more to her than to him, as he has known all along, having questioned the doormen of the building. Joao Luis does love her and admires how smart she is, admittedly more so than he, who in his own words, is already academically a “disappointment to my family,” but he like her is caught in the societal strictures of Brazil’s rigid class and race structure and expectations. He has found her a doctor for an abortion, and a source of pills “so it won’t happen again. I should have thought of that before,” he says with conviction. She rejects his offer and in the last scene she is met by her mother who sits waiting at the bottom of the stairs going up the hill. She has intuited that her daughter is pregnant. “How far along is he,” her mother asks, although Carmelucia isn’t yet showing. In the end, she tenderly touches her daughter’s belly, saying, “This one is one of us.”
Arthur Powers is the opposite of an unreliable narrator in these profound, moving and sometimes humorous snapshots and tales of life in Latin America and in North America in one instance, “Hometown, Illinois 1992,”an affecting reflection on displacement. One can trust him every step of the way and if you read him carefully you come to understand that he is revealing profound subtextual lessons about poverty, place, class, racism, abuse of power, faith, and love. Though Catholic and published by Catholic presses, I see him in the company of the brilliant Yiddish authors, Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who told tales depicting people of faith and poverty overcoming adversity with laughter, sadness, and simple heroism, as well as culpability.
Powers’ stories are a valuable contribution to the Peace Corps canon and beyond. Don’t miss this one. As Berthold Brecht once declared, “Erst kommt Fressen, dann die Moral,”— first comes chow, then the moral. In Padre Raimundo’s Army, the moral is exemplary — and the chow’s just great.
Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65) is the author of three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island, published by Curbstone Press, and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. She is a winner of the Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award, The New York Times “New and Noteworthy in Paperback,” Barnes and Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers,” and the Marian Haley Beil Award for Best Book Review in 2020. Mueller is currently back at work on her hybrid memoir/biography, The Showgirl and the Writer: A Friendship Forged in the Aftermath of the Japanese American Incarceration.