Winner of the Portuguese Writers' Association Grand Prize for Fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Literature, and a best-seller in Portugal, Mario de Carvalho's A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening is a vivid and affecting historical novel set at the twilight of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Christian era. Lucius Valerius Quintius is prefect of the fictitious city of Tarcisis, charged to defend it against menaces from without -- Moors invading the Iberian peninsula -- and from within -- the decadent complacency of the Pax Romana. Lucius's devotion to civic duty undergoes its most crucial test when Iunia Cantaber, the beautiful, charismatic leader of the outlawed Christian sect, is brought before his court. A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening is a timeless story of an era beset by radical upheaval and a man struggling to reconcile his heart, his ethics, and his civic duty.
This novel takes place in the Roman province of Lusitania [present-day Portugal], in a small town, Tarcisis, which the author informs us never existed. We first see Lucius Valerius Quintius, the main character, in his country villa with his wife, Mara. Taking a walk along the riverbank, he sees a slave boy drawing a fish in the sand. Upon Lucius' questioning, the frightened boy runs off, spilling the berries he had been gathering. Later, back home, Lucius decides to write down what had happened when he had been duumvir [magistrate] in the town, in the days of Marcus Aurelius. Yes, there is "action", and plenty of it--the arrest of a bandit, an attack on Tarcisis by Moors from North Africa, a siege that follows, and discovery and trial of Christians.
The main thrust of the story is the psychology of Lucius's character. We read every thought, every doubt, every agony over every decision. Lucius is a good, honest, idealistic man, with his honorable code of right and wrong. He wrestles with himself. Sometimes his loving, loyal wife interjects her common sense.
He is attracted to and is obsessed by Iunia, the daughter of an old friend he had grown up with. She is the charismatic, zealot lay leader of Christians in the town. He doesn't know why he has the feelings he does and tells us so. Any interaction between the two is completely chaste. The story represents a conflict between idealism [Lucius] and Realpolitik [the other civil servants in authority, a candidate for the office of aedile, and a senator]. You could almost take it as an allegory for today.
The details of small-town life were described so marvellously and so vividly. What stood out was the moonlight walk Lucius takes with Aulus, the town centurion, along the walls of the town and the aqueduct. They are expecting an attack and want to investigate the walls for weakness. I also remember Lucius's visit to Rome with a delegation from his home town, years before. His private conversations, with Marcus Aurelius then and with the senator, years later, mirror each other.
Lucius was not 'heroic' but very human and very sympathetic. This novel was thoughtful and absolutely unforgettable! Most highly recommended!
But above all, the book is a character study; the protagonist Quintius is its focus. As a character study, the book left me wanting a bit more - it's not the study of a strong and inspiring character as the other reviews here suggest. The N.Y. Times review above focuses on his "moral code, as well as a provocative meditation on the difficulty of leading a virtuous life in as era of tumultuous change." Quintius is a reluctant magistrate, forced into the seat of power by lazy demagogues who would rather not be burdened with responsibility. And though Quintius holds steadfastly to his perception of duty as a Roman citizen, his perception is out of step with the society around him. Rather than drawing strength from his convictions and being a strong ruler, he seems buffeted by the sea of events around him: political rivals, threats from without, the emerging Christian faith within his city, and a strange obsession with a female, Iunia.
In short this is not an inspiring story of the triumph of a moral soul, but a study of the torture of seeing things differently than the masses. If this was the author's desired effect, then the book is an unqualified success. However, I thought some of the tools used in reaching this end were under-developed. Quintius' obsession with Iunia drives the novel near the end, and I never understood the motivation for this relationship (admittedly, I guess neither did Quintius...). And ultimately, I hoped to see a development or substantial change in the protagonist in the end, and found little.
Readers who enjoy Jose Saramago will likely find de Carvalho interesting. I enjoyed reading the book. I don't know if I _liked_ the book. If you crave historical ambiance, or generating feelings of uneasiness in yourself, you will enjoy reading the book. I'm not sure if you'll _like_ it either, though...
The story is well-written; the characters well-drawn and believable; and the action is hard and direct and well-described when it comes. In the latter there certainly are parallels with Leonard. I will look for others in the series.