Leperello by William Palmer (Seeker and Warburg, £15.99) Piers Paul Read THE French Catholic novelist, Julien Green, believed that a saint had a sinful doppelgdnger: "While the saint develops if the man is a saint the sinner in him develops on the imaginative plane." Thus a Don Giovanni lurks in a St Jerome who complained, when a hermit in the desert of Chalcis, that "in my mind I often found myself among groups of dancing girls" whose image stoked "the fires of lust".
Equally, according to Green, "if the sinner gets the better of the saint, the saint develops as best he can in the imaginative plane. That is why a sinner who is converted never starts from scratch. He has made some progress during his life of sin". In other words, a St Jerome lurks within a Don Giovanni.
This is not quite the hypothesis of this excellent novel by William Palmer. It takes the form of the autobiography of Don Giovanni's valet, Leperello, who second only to Sancho Panza is the most celebrated manservant in art. Both are the earthy fixers for their romantic masters Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Don Giovanni at women.
Using the bawdy language and imagery that one might expect from an Italian peasant of the period, Palmer tells the story of Leperello's birth to Don Giovanni's death, subtly leading the reader from the picaresque to the philosophical as the Don's dissipation takes its toll on both his body and his soul.
Palmer's first novel, The Good Republic, was a quiet, subtle story about emigres from a Baltic republic. Leperello is so different in style that one is at first incredulous that the two books are by the same writer, but then recognises both as the work of a master of his art. The two do have sonic things in common for example the unobtrusive accuracy in historical detail, in this case in the depiction of Leperello's background, the different worlds of master and servant, the feudal feasting and court intrigue. Although the narrative never departs from Leperello's crude point of view, Don Giovanni is shown as a man of his time his womanising an aspect of the Enlightenment's rejection of God and religion.
"You, think God cares who puts what of his body where, or where what? Dear Leperello, in that case we should both ignite upon the spot. And every other poor sinner and lover. Only the holy, celibate souls be left. If your God worried so much about the conduct of the sexes he would have peopled the world with alabaster statues. Fortunately, the priests have had the clever idea of cooping all those in the churches and letting the rest of us get on with it."
The Don Giovanni in Leperello is punished for his sins, but not in the way we expect. As in Mozart's opera, he is dragged down to hell by the Commendatore's ghost but only as part of a theatrical extravaganza staged by the Don himself to cover up his escape when his enemies are closing in on him.
However, his life after this fictitious death, which makes up the last third of the novel, describes a far subtler and more convincing hell. A latent disease, presumably syphilis, leads to blindness and premature senility. The irresistible seducer becomes apathetic invalid, his lust turned to despair. If there is a saintly doppelganger in Don Giovanni, Palmer does not allow us to see him through the eyes of Leperello.
Piers Paul Read is a Catholic novelist and Master of the Keys, the Catholic writers' guild.