At the intersection of faith and doubt
Tens of thousands gathered near Fatima, Portugal, on Oct. 13, 1917, to witness a miracle predicted by three shepherd children who’d had visions of the Virgin Mary. Some that day reported seeing a multicolored sun that danced in the sky. Others saw a spectacular rainbow, while still others saw nothing unusual. But skeptic and believer alike had traveled there for proof that their beliefs were true or false, for an end to the terrible loneliness of uncertainty.
This is the quest, the desire to resolve doubt, that drives Frank X. Gaspar’s exquisite new novel, “Stealing Fatima.’’
Father Manny Furtado’s parish in his childhood home of Provincetown is Our Lady of Fatima. A lovely and ornate statue of its namesake had once adorned the church, but years earlier, Manny and his close friend Sarafino, fueled by amphetamines and youthful rage, had stolen it. The next morning Sarafino shipped off to boot camp; Manny entered the Navy soon after; the friendship ended; and the statue, which disappeared from the place where the two stashed it, was never recovered.
Now, with the help of his sister Alzaida and devout parishioner Mariah, Manny is rebuilding the church as the vital center of gravity for the town’s Portuguese community, an anchor in a village where fishing boats are being repurposed to take tourists on whale watches, and condos are springing up everywhere to house affluent seasonal visitors.
He is not motivated so much by religious faith as by civic duty. Indeed, he is filled with doubt and has, for now, abandoned the Creed. “Jesus was not divine,’’ he thinks, “and God did not go around impregnating young girls as the Holy Spirit, and there was no virgin birth and no Holy Virgin. But there was God, still, and it was clear that He loved us, in some mysterious way.’’
Competent and engaged by day, Manny’s evenings are solitary and ritualized. He numbs his aching neck and shoulder (souvenirs of a plane crash he survived while in Vietnam) with painkillers and a tumbler of gin, and floating on a wave of intoxication, he records in lengthy, rambling journal entries his increasingly frantic quest to know God, including eventually the story of the visions at Fatima.
One night his routine is interrupted. Sarafino, long-absent from the town and believed by many to have died years earlier, breaks into the church. In violation of his parole, desperately ill in the final stages of AIDS, Sarafino has been seeing visions of the Virgin Mary and has come back to town to find and return the statue. He has visions; he believes in miracles; and his feverish faith disrupts Manny’s controlled routine.
But it also creates a conspiracy of both concealment and trust among the small group - Manny, Alzaida, her husband Tom, Mariah, and her lover Winslow - who harbor and nurse the dying fugitive. Secrets are revealed; old ghosts resuscitated; and the status quo cannot hold in what becomes a quest for faith and redemption by each one of them.
“Stealing Fatima’’ is far from a perfect book. Its pace is almost painfully slow, and a protagonist who is a cipher even to himself is initially unengaging. But Gaspar’s prose, with both its deliberation and moments of uncontainable joy, is like a soaring choral Mass. Independent of religious faith, skeptic and believer alike cannot help but be swept away by the beauty of the expression.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.