This is one of the last books of Somerset Maugham and, although it may not be a masterpiece compared to other of his works (Of Human Bondage), it still remains a nice story, written with the same humor, subtle irony and deep understanding of human nature.
This is one of the things that I love about Somerset Maugham, the fact that his characters are portrayed in a real and believable manner, not just black and white. The villains are not completely bad and rotten to the core, and the good guys are not flawless – everybody has good and bad in them, which is how life really is like (like the yin-yang Chinese symbol).
The story takes place in Spain in the dark ages of the Inquisition, in the city of Castel Rodriguez.. On the Feast of the Assumption, while the whole city was celebrating and expecting the visit of two illustrious people, the Bishop of Segovia, don Blasco and his brother the captain Manuel de Valero, a 16 year old crippled girl Catalina has an encounter, while praying , with Virgin Mary. Since the girl was not born crippled, but injured in an accident few years ago, and left by her fiancée Diego because of this, The Queen of Heaven, moved by her tears and prayers tells her that:
“The son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God has it in his power to heal you. He will lay his hands upon you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, bid you throw away your crutch and walk. You will throw down your crutch and you will walk.”
Now, don Juan Suarez de Valero had three sons - the Bishop, the captain and Martin, who ashamed his family by choosing a job unfit to their family nobility (he became a baker, and he loved his work, despite everybody’s insults). They each served God as they knew best – the Bishop with his self-flagellations, prayers and burning the infidels; the Captain, killing, burning the villages and taking away the goods in the name of God; and the baker by supporting his parents, being a kind and compassionate person who fed the poor and felt grateful for his simple and joyous life.
Besides the lessons in humility, there are presented other political games, where people get involved in ambitious fights for what they believe is serving the high virtues. Yet, the two of the central authority figures, dona Beatriz, prioress of the local convent built for her by her father the Duke of Castel Rodriguez, and don Blasco the Bishop, are both intelligent people and in their severity there is still place for understanding the human weaknesses and even compassion.
After being healed, Catalina’s life changes completely, she gets her lover back – she was a very beautiful and intelligent girl anyway – and her life changes in the direction that she desires, not after a second divine intervention in her life.
I will not reveal more of the plot, I just recommend the book as being an easy and pleasant lecture, a lesson in humility that is neither boring, nor preachy.
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