A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening by Mario de Carvalho

Mario de Carvalho's novel, set in the fictional town of Tarcisis during the dying years of Marcus Aurelius reign as Emperor of the Roman Empire, fully deserves the Pegasus Prize for Literature, dealing as it does with a civic leader's attempt, over a six month period, to deal with several fundamental issues, ending with the trial of fervent Christianity in a small town atmosphere that is itself under social change and duress.

The story concerns the administration of the sole duumvir (the other dying off quite quickly midterm), Lucius Valerius Quintius, husband of Mara, focusing on two main areas of action. The first is the impending arrival of the human migration of Moors at the city walls, the other the advent of a Christian sect. Weaving into both is his relationship with Rufus Cardillius, aedile-elect and tavern keeper and with Iunia Cantaber, daughter of the respected equestrian, Maximus Cantaber, who has become a fervent Christian.

After an opening skirmish with Pontius Velutius Modius over the destruction of his house to replace the crumbling city wall and his subsequent suicide and the capture of Arsenna, a highwayman, by his trusted centurion, Aulus, Lucius finds his attempt to emulate his philosopher emperor brings him into odds with the people he is entrusted to care for. His very aloofness removes him from the common mind and he patently struggles at times to understand human nature. All of which stands him in bad stead when he is reluctantly forced to deal with the Christian sect and, more particularly, confront the nature of his personal relationship with Iunia who is determined upon a course of martyrdom. With an assorted supporting cast including Ennius Calpurnius, a senator, Lucius allows events to wash past him in an almost emotionless way as he defends his city from attack and struggles to understand the new religion that has come to his city whilst retaining his philosophical way of life.

Partway through Carvalho returns us to Rome for a flashback at the Colosseum where Lucius is singled out personally by Marcus Aurelius for some advice that remains with his for his entire life, if only when he realises he is not following it.

The novel is beautifully crafted and the inner struggles portrayed in the book are timeless yet vividly drawn, bringing a cast of characters to life in a manner that is both tragic and joyful, full of justice and injustice, yet all the while a sense of fate looms large, an inexorability that social change is slow to come and cannot be rushed. Carvalho's novel fully justifies its recognition.

10/10 Carvalho's novel fully justifies its recognition.

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