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Man in Black

THE SEVILLE COMMUNION. \o7 By Arturo Perez-Reverte (Harcourt Brace: 380 pp., $24)\f7

June 28, 1998|NICK OWCHAR | Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review

Paintings, sculptures and other relics of the European past are potent time capsules. They pulse and glow with the fiery passions that created them and can overwhelm the modern admirer's senses. If that person happens to be a millionaire, the sight of a Michelangelo or Rubens might move him to become a collector. But if the admirer is a psychopath, such art may inspire him to take an ordinary murder and give it enough gothic twists to make Edgar Allan Poe or Cesare Borgia envious.

In his first novel, "The Flanders Panel," Arturo Perez-Reverte considered the sinister influences of art. A restorer finds a question hidden in a 15th century painting of a game of chess: "Who killed the knight?" The riddle drives her to untangle the relationships of the people depicted and solve a 400-year-old mystery. At the same time, however, somebody else is playing the game shown in the painting and, one by one, eliminating the restorer's friends. Perez-Reverte's subsequent books have also focused on an enigmatic work of art, which has become his trademark.

"The Seville Communion" focuses attention on the powers exerted by an old baroque Spanish church in modern-day Seville. Here real estate interests face religious ones in a deadly tug of war with supernatural overtones. Not as tightly wound as in Perez-Reverte's past novels, the plot turns instead to a question much larger than a whodunit: What happens when faith degenerates into obsession?

"The Seville Communion" follows the efforts of a Vatican diplomat named Lorenzo Quart, who is sent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding Our Lady of the Tears. Crumbling in a quiet square, Our Lady is on the verge of being secularized and sold to the powerful Cartujano Bank. But there are problems. Two priests have died there in recent months: One was crushed by falling mortar, another fell from a scaffold. An unsettling message comes from a computer hacker who has broken into the pope's personal file: The church must be saved, it says, adding that Our Lady is "a church that kills to defend itself."

But he is the wrong person for this assignment. A holy warrior who has proved himself on missions to South America and Bosnia, Quart is entering middle age, and Perez-Reverte casts him as a priest whose fervency has cooled. At one point, after seeing his lean, chaste body in a mirror, he falls on his bed and sinks into "a quiet, desperate sadness." Vatican envoys, lacking the roots of a parish priest, are drifters, and sharp pangs of loneliness are welling up in him.

On his first day in Seville, Quart enters the mysterious church. Looking up at the vault, he doesn't sense any supernatural menace, nor can he find the artistic glories of the past, just the effects of time: "The elliptical dome, surrounded by a blind lantern, was decorated with frescoes that had been almost completely obliterated by smoke from the candles and by fire. . . . [H]e could just make out a few angels, and some bearded prophets covered with patches of mold that made them look like lepers."

The altarpiece gives the church its name--a statue of the Holy Mother wears a blue mantle inset with 20 gleaming pearls. The tragic story behind the pearls' origins is hypnotizing, especially to Quart. This early scene in the church offers a splendid metaphor for Quart's inner struggle: a church structure and a priestly vocation, collapsing together. His crisis looms over the entire story and has a decided impact on its outcome.

On one side of the conflict over the fate of Our Lady of the Tears are the high-powered banker Pencho Gavira, who wants to sell the church property in a deal that will clinch him the Cartujano chairmanship, and the Catholic Church, which has been promised a new church in another location and a big donation ("which is good, because nowadays the collection boxes in most parish churches aren't exactly overflowing," the sarcastic archbishop of Seville tells Quart).

On the other is the church's small group of supporters. They're hardly a force that can match the bank's resources and its allies: Father Priamo Ferro, Our Lady's explosive, stubborn pastor; Gris Marsala, an American nun determined to restore the church; the beautiful Macarena Bruner, Gavira's estranged wife; and her aging aristocratic mother, Cruz.

Yet the Bruners possess some leverage against the developers. The church contains their family crypt, and a nobleman ancestor buried there has been honored with a Mass every Thursday since 1687; as long as the practice continues, the land can never be secularized. Mother and daughter will not give in, nor will Ferro.

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