Crisis of Faith or Hopeful Trend: John Guthrie on Stealing Fatima by Frank X. Gaspar

Stealing Fatima, Frank X. Gaspar, Counterpoint, 2009

Stealing Fatima is a meticulously crafted work of literary fiction. The setting, though unnamed, is obviously the Portuguese fishing village and arts colony of Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. The primary characters are Fr. Manuel Furtado and his long absent childhood friend, Sarafino Pomba. Sarafino returns dying of AIDs. He is convinced that he has experienced visitations from Our Lady of Fatima. It quickly becomes apparent that Sarafino brings other baggage; there is an outstanding arrest warrant for him for armed robbery.

An additional matter that drives the narrative to its intriguing denouement is the fact that Fr. Furtado, “Manny” to his friends, is experiencing a profound inner conflict which can be described at least initially as a disturbing crisis of faith or a hopeful trend toward rationality, depending on one’s perspective:

He did not believe that Jesus was Divine or the Son of God, nor did he believe that God impregnated a young girl through the Holy Spirit (which now reminded him of Zeus and all his disguised copulations with humans). So he did not believe that Our Lady appeared to Sarafino Pomba or ever to anyone else. He did not believe in the Resurrection. He did not believe that God would sacrifice a son to be tortured to death in order to redeem a race of beings He himself created imperfectly.

But more ominously, as he labors mightily to rebuild his previously neglected and dying parish by day, Father Furtado’s life is further troubled by an alarming degree self-medication for the pain of an old neck and shoulder injury. This is the result of a plane crash while serving in the military in Vietnam. His drugs of choice are Gordon’s gin and poly-pharmacy; prescription pain pills obtained with a number of illicit prescriptions. He also has intermittent tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, which may be an early harbinger of hearing damage, a la Rush Limbaugh, from opiate abuse. The gin and pills have become the elements of his own and personal eucharist each evening as he sits alone in the rectory, scribbling away in his journal. Following the reappearance of Sarafino, in a well-constructed flash-back the reader learns that as adolescents, Manny and Sarafino, in an amphetamine induced spree, stole a treasured statue of our Lady of Fatima from the church where Manny now presides. Neither of them were found out. Both of the eighteen-year-olds entered military service and served in Vietnam shortly after the theft. The statue was never recovered.

Our Lady of Fatima is beloved by many Catholics, in particular those of Portuguese extraction. Her story, eventually included in Manny’s journal, references the six repeated apparitions of Virgin Mary as reported by three children. This is held as having occurred on the same day of a half dozen consecutive months beginning on May 13th, 1917 in Fátima, Portugal. The story has become iconic for many in the Portuguese community, in part because of its elements of purported prophecy and apocalyptic belief. Our Lady of Fatima serves as leitmotif for Stealing Fatima, a binding principal for the community and the story.

In the truest sense Stealing Fatima it is much more than a tale of individuals or of faith or the loss thereof. It is a story of the Portuguese immigrant community of Provincetown.

The Portuguese were Catholic before Portugal was a country. Portugal, though a small country (about the size of Maine) is one with a dramatic history that is out of proportion to its area. During the age of Exploration it was preeminent in the world. The residents of the fishing community of Provincetown are the spiritual heirs of such explorers as Diogo Silves (The Azores), Vasco da Gama (India), Ferdinand Magellan (Circumnavigation of the Globe), Diogo Cao (The Congo) and others.

The reappearance of Sarafina Pomba inevitably introduces multiple difficulties into the narrative. Already Sarafino is showing severe and lethal complications from AIDs including lung cancer. Nothing can be done but palliative care. Manny decides to allow him to reside in the rectory until he dies. This requires a conspiracy of silence between not only Manny and Sarafino, but Manny’s sister Alzaida her husband Tom and devout parishioner Mariah and Mariah’s lover, a woman named Winslow. This decision, as anyone knows who has ever cared for a very sick yet demanding person, much less one who is a fugitive, is a remarkable act of kindness and grace. Father Furtado emerges in his quirky way as a deeply flawed individual of intriguing complexity and remarkable humanity. Stealing Fatima provides a window on an intriguing community, one that struggles with surprising success to accommodate the changes that occur in this village by the sea. The novel also offers incisive psychological insights into its characters, in particular Father Furtado.

The pace of this work is slow initially, as is often the case with literary fiction (e.g. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna), but action and gravitas increase as the reader continues. Like a master mason, Gaspar incrementally builds an artful and finely wrought edifice, one that provides a perspective on an historic and thriving immigrant community.