(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In Miguel de Unamuno’s Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr (also known as Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr), the titular protagonist is a priest who lives an outward life of devotion to church and community while struggling with an inner life filled with doubt about a tenet of his Roman Catholic faith: a belief in life after death. The novella is a story within a story. The narrator, Angela Carballino, more than fifty years old, writes down the secret of Don Manuel’s inner life when she hears that the local bishop seeks to canonize him. She never intends the bishop to see the manuscript that she calls a “confession.” The epilogue reveals that it was mysteriously given to Unamuno.

Angela first recalls herself at ten and Don Manuel at thirty-seven, the new pastor of the Roman Catholic Church and a newcomer to the village who gave up a brilliant career in the Church to help his widowed sister care for her sons. When Angela returns from a convent school in the city five years later, Don Manuel is as necessary to the village as the mountain and the lake that border it. He tirelessly mends marriages as well as torn clothes and attends the sick and dying as well as the celebrating. He is especially kind to the mentally disabled Blasillo. Don Manuel’s voice moves the villagers, especially during Mass on Good Friday, because it sounds as if it were Jesus Christ speaking. As Blasillo wanders the village, he imitates Don Manuel’s voice speaking the most moving words of Christ’s Passion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” However, each time the congregation recites the Creed, Don Manuel’s voice disappears on the lines about belief in the resurrection.

Angela becomes his “deaconess.” She helps him with his pastoral duties in...

(The entire section is 726 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The story begins at the moment when the town of Valverde de Lucerna begins to promote the beatification of its beloved priest. Angela Carballino, whose real father died when she was a child, has always considered Don Manuel as her “spiritual father”; she recounts his life as a kind of confession, the nature of which is not clear until the end of the novel.

Angela first recalls Don Manuel as a robust, active priest of about thirty-seven who participated in every aspect of the life of the town. He was especially interested in children and often helped in the school, teaching not only catechism but also other subjects. He was moved by the death of any child and rejected the popular notion that an early death is a blessing because a dead child goes directly to Heaven. He routinely helped the poor, providing them with clean clothing. On one occasion, he intercepted a child whose father had sent him for firewood on a wintry day, sending the boy home and going for the wood himself. Rather than preaching the glories of Heaven, Don Manuel urged the villagers to enjoy life on earth; he encouraged them to give parties, to dance, to be happy. His most important function, however, was helping people to die. At the moment of a parishioner’s death, Don Manuel offered comfort and strength.

Don Manuel became the spiritual mainstay of the village. Everyone loved him. Soon his reputation extended beyond Valverde de Lucerna. When Angela went to an out-of-town high school, the girls asked constantly about Don Manuel. Before long, he became famous for his miracles. On the night of San Juan, on which Spaniards celebrate the beginning of summer, the physically and emotionally ill would come from miles around to gather at the lake at Valverde de Lucerna, which Don Manuel turned into a healing pool. Sometimes, moved by Don Manuel’s presence and his extraordinary voice, they would come away cured. Yet when someone asked Don Manuel for a miraculous cure, all he would answer was, “I don’t have permission from the bishop to perform miracles.” As Don Manuel’s fame grew, he received opportunities to advance within the Church structure, but he refused to leave his parishioners. “How can I save my own soul if I fail to save the soul...

(The entire section is 916 words.)