Religion and Morality in Tango in Madeira

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I’m not about to get po-faced and moral. This is a funny book.

“The Emperor Karl is a descendent of Jesus Christ,” Pennyweight announces in the first line of the novel, and by the same token makes religion a theme, though I didn’t think of it in those terms at the start. Rather I’d decided that Pennyweight was a comical character and his gullibility in all matters relating to the Occult seemed to me a fine comic notion and mildly satirical. My choice of this rather than some other trait stems from my interest in charlatans. Since I originally wrote Tango in MadeiraHow to be a Charlatan, and I maintain a lively interest in the subject of sceptical thinking (as to which see ).

In my notes on background I acknowledge my debt to Graham Greene. He, of course, was troubled by religious issues, and so some exploration of that theme was logical as part of my homage, though I should clarify that, despite being interested in religion, I don’t agonise over it: in fact I’m a committed atheist and comfortable with that. Insofar as any religious perspective has attractions for me, it is Gnosticism, which figures significantly in the subtext of The Argentinian Virgin. However, whereas in that book I treat it seriously, in the present one I poke fun at it in the shape of its exponent, Pennyweight.

The foil to Pennyweight with his certainties and belief in Higher Powers is the reluctant priest, Father Flaherty, who was “shanghaied” by the Lord against his natural inclinations, which run to Fenian politics, running a pub, and fathering illegitimate children. Father Flaherty’s god is veiled, sly and irresistible. The priest believes not because any of it makes sense but because he was overwhelmed by the divinity. I don’t claim to share this feeling, but I accept it exists and try to describe its effect. His religion is one of the emotions, not logic, evidence or doctrine, and his touchstone is “a good heart”, which he discerns in the Narrator.

When he read the book, my friend and former publisher Nick Webb (who admired it) was appalled by the moral vacuum at the heart of the Narrator. This isn’t the same as “evil”, but a state of moral drift. It arises, I suggest, from his existential uncertainty of identity which leaves him without an inner compass or any firm purpose. As Father Flaherty sees, he aspires to do good but he feels powerless and has no faith in his own capacity. This leads him to a sneaking admiration for Pennyweight who possesses the certainties he himself lacks. He recognises Pennyweight as a Holy Fool and that there is an essential goodness behind the fat man’s ridiculous façade: that he possesses a certain Christlike simplicity, which is the secret behind his “tremendousness”. It’s a measure of the Narrator’s good heart that he can acknowledge this.

The person least troubled by moral or religious issues is the fictional Emperor Charlie in Shaw’s play. His interest in spelling reform is spiced with a sense of his own silliness, and arises from his recognition that the false certainties of the various squabbling nationalities in his Empire can lead only to disaster. He makes clear that he doesn’t want to be a martyr. “Don’t let anyone say I’ve died for a good cause. All I wanted was to be happy with you and the children.” His moral sense is directed firmly at the this-worldly and the practical.

I hope these few notes help you enjoy Tango in Madeira – always assuming you care to read it.

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