Duke, the Dog Priest by Domício Coutinho

About Domício Coutinho: Born in João Pessoa, Brazil in 1931, Coutinho emigrated to the United States in 1959, eventually earning a Master’s and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York (CUNY) in addition to his bachelor’s degree in Aristotelian Thomistic theology from the Gregorian University of Rome. In 1986, Coutinho, with his wife and two sons, began a business in real estate appropriation and management of properties. In 1999, Coutinho founded The Brazilian Writers Association of New York (UBENY). In 2002, he was admitted as Commander into the Order of Rio Branco, a Brazilian Institution honoring those who have distinguished themselves in cultural and patriotic achievements. In 2004, Coutinho founded the Brazilian Endowment for the Arts (BEA), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the Brazilian Arts, Literature, and Cultural Traditions for the Brazilian/American and Latin American Communities. That same year, he created The Machado de Assis Medal of Merit to honor those who distinguish themselves in Brazilian Cultural Traditions. In 2006, Coutinho founded The Brazilian Library of New York, which houses 7,000 titles, with an auditorium for events, conferences, literary gatherings, films, and dramatic performances. The library has been visited by prominent representatives from government, diplomacy, and academia.

Aside from an untranslated poetry collection titled Salomônica (1975) and an untranslated novel titled Incríveis Revelações de uma Minhoca (2000), Coutinho published a novel in 1998 titled Duke, the Dog Priest, which was translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers and brought out by Green Integer in 2009.

I interviewed Domício Coutinho here.

“The sacred, the mysterious, fables, mythology—all contained the same thing, their history, their magic. […] The Jews had invented the Bible; the Greeks, classical mythology; the Scandinavians, the saga of the Valkyries; the Arabs, the Thousand and One Nights. The Spanish have the image of El Cid implanted in their minds. The Portuguese even today ask what the world would be like in the Fifth Empire. The human mind is a wondrous factory for all myths.”

At first Duke, the Dog Priest gives the impression of being the Cien años de soledad of New York, yet its scope is not as expansive even if it maintains high ambitions throughout its nearly 500 pages. Another hint at its more contained scope is the title, which doesn’t have the lapidary quality of Gabo’s masterpiece nor fellow Portuguese writer João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s An Invincible Memory. Rather than encompassing the whole of the Big Apple, Coutinho focuses mostly on the members of a Catholic parish, turning New York into its dead-language counterpart, Nova Eboracense. However, his novel is no apologia. Instead, it often adopts a satirical and irreverent tone that would have many of the faithful foaming, “Blasphemy!” Coutinho not only acknowledges that natural and species-perpetuating phenomenon known as lust, something religion villainizes and oppresses, but he explores it at length, including lust in the loins of the anointed, for it’s one of the book’s major themes. The lesson could be summed up as follows: celibacy is against our animal nature, if not religion in its entirety.

Occasionally, the prose will personify abstract concepts, adding an almost Aesopian zest to the storytelling, an extra layer beyond the usual satire and irreverence, as when “deformity grew and took possession of [a faithful’s] soul. One day, reason packed its bags and departed, and he was left alone looking through the hole in the door.” Closer to that Greek fabulist is the personification of germs who “invaded [a priest’s] body like savage vandals, with every weapon in their mischief-making arsenal, and the coughing and sneezing, the mucus, the fever, the cold tremors and night sweats made the sack of Rome look like child’s play.” Coutinho takes it further by explaining how germs were given “carte blanche” within bodies as a fulfilling purpose from God. A final example is the flowers that the orphically gorgeous florist Dorothy handles: “Her flowers made love, fought, separated, became widows, committed suicide. She would play with them, directing gentle jokes at them or risqué, insolent words, sighing over a love that melted away. […] it wasn’t the woman who was being entranced by the flowers, but rather the flowers that couldn’t resist her spell….”

Early on in the novel, the manuscript that the narrator is writing comes under the critical scrutiny of the titular canine who explains what to cut and add so that it’s elevated beyond “a collection of things that make no sense either here or in the next world.” Despite being bothered by the critique, the narrator had already become fond of the dog, wanting to “ask his approval for a vast work that included everything.” While this novel is a bit shy of an Everything book, it still manages to include a generous number of asides, digressions, and stories-within-stories, such as the brief tale of the romantic ass who had a voice like Figaro and was crazy about plums, or a longer section in which Father Thomas demonstrates his famous aptitude in the “art of expelling demons” where we also become privy to a bit of politics as they pertain to the Federal Republic of Hell.

Like many of the greatest Latin American novels, Coutinho maintains a mostly avian perspective of the people until we get an extended series of chapters that deal in depth with the story of Brother Alphonse who has a spiritual and well-nigh mental breakdown after his dog Duke does the dirty deed with a bitch. He initially thinks it’s his fault for tying Duke up on the street as he ran an errand but later admits to being aroused by the scene, replacing in his mind the female dog with a female human, the male dog with himself…bestial blasphemy! However guano crazy things get, Coutinho balances it out with sincerity for the characters and their feelings, especially those fueled by a misplaced passion. Unfortunately, it gets worse and worse for Brother Alphonse, although after various troubles, there is something of a happy ending for someone, just not him. Here’s a taste of the sacrilegious rigmarole: “‘Ex-prostitute, ex-nun raped and pregnant marries the brother of the priest who killed himself over her,’ read the sensationalist newspapers in the Village.”

Through repressively perverted priests and naughty nuns, among other characters, Coutinho portrays the war within, instinct versus what we know or think we know is better. Brother Alphonse is not the only one to spiral. The parish dishwasher Boris eventually has a meltdown and is admitted into an asylum, reduced to acting like a dog on an invisible leash, later dying in his daughter’s arms. His last words before he falls into madness are a moral for the novel, something so simple that it can be learned without the mythology of religion: “The secret of everything, daughter, is to follow your better instincts; to put into practice what the voices of good there inside tell us.”

Speaking of acting like a dog, our titular character is not always front and center but he’s omnipresent, as it were. In many ways, Duke, who ‘joins’ the parish after being dropped off at the door of the church, is the manifestation, or canifestation, if you will, of our animal nature, particularly those choked by the clerical collar. I couldn’t help but remember a Jewish substitute teacher I had for a single class in middle school who asked with specious profundity regarding a student’s story about a noteworthy dog, “What’s dog spelled backward?” She seemed to be emphasizing the holiness within this household pet but the reverse could be just as true, the animality within the Creator, what with his Old Testament temperament, a wolf in lamb’s clothing.

Rather than understanding the religion of man, and I do mean specifically man, Duke worships the Great Master, the God of the masters, the Great Dog, as well as the Virgin Bitch, Mother of all dogs, part of the pack rather than the flock, as it were, although he’s often as intrigued by the behaviors of the parishioners as he is frustrated by their incompetence. On page 289, we get a brief canine creation story that opens with the following: “In the beginning was the Dog.”

After the tragedy of his human master, Duke wanders the nighttime streets and encounters an old mangy friend of his named Poor Devil, his counterpart in the sense that Duke had been domesticated while Poor Devil is wild and homeless. And like God and his wayward Lord of Light, Duke pities Poor Devil, powerless to do anything of consequence for him except mourn his unexpected death, for no one else will (“The garbage truck picked him up. It was horrible to hear the splintering of his bones.”). Before that, they both have a run-in with the canine mafia, Duke suspected of being a “spy from the West Side, with that dumb face of his….”

At the end of Duke’s eventful life, he doesn’t die but rather rises into the sky, a vertical motion that brings to mind Márquez’s Remedios the Beauty in 100 Years of Solitude who rises to heaven, the Methuselan matriarch Úrsula leaving “the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.” And let’s not forget the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses at the end of the “Cyclops” episode: “And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.” But Coutinho goes farther than that, literally:

…Duke was swept into the air by that tremendous whirlwind, spinning, spinning, his paws raised, his expression proud. Many people saw it, and went dashing through the streets with [Lourdes] in the hope of finding him fallen to earth somewhere. Futile. […] An astronomer at Mount Palomar had detected a brilliant object moving at the speed of light in the direction of Sirius in the constellation of Canis Major, the Great Dog.

Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers and published by Green Integer in 2009 [the original came out in 1998], this novel is for anyone who loves passionate storytelling in the Latin American style but with some twists, such as its American, albeit ecclesiastical, locale. If you’re still on the fence, then maybe the legendary translator Gregory Rabassa can sway you. Coutinho’s son showed me a letter that Rabassa wrote to his pater in 2004, which features a blurb for the novel that reads as follows: “Here to take his place alongside such outstanding characters of Brazilian fiction as the late Brás Cubas, Dona Flor, Riobaldo, G. H., and Caetana is Duke, the dog-priest or priest-dog, presented […] in this novel located somewhere between the work of Lima Barreto and Jonathan Swift. We are thankful for this rollicking romp.”

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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