Sunday, 27 May 2012

Eça's Hack Novel

Eça de Queiroz
Many spoilers for The Mystery of the Sintra Road

In 1870, between July 24 and September 27, anonymous letters arrived at the Diário de Notícias newspaper reporting a mysterious kidnapping on the Sintra road, a crime which was but the prelude to a more sinister plot implicating rich people in adultery, forgery, robbery, murder and cover-ups. For two months readers lived in their thrall, fascinated by the details as they were daily revealed in letters sent by one of the kidnapped men, a doctor later released, and to whose testimony other voices were added, some even contradictory, until several of the culprits came forth to explain the mystery. It is said that Lisboners at the time were shocked by the events, believing the narrative to be true, and some even feared using Sintra’s byways for months; police inquiries were actually opened, but to no avail. Indeed they could find nothing because the crimes were just a hoax concocted by Eça de Queiroz and Ramalho Ortigão, two Portuguese Orson Welleses.

Ramalho de Ortigão
Eça, one of the finest practitioners of the realist novel, wasn’t yet a renowned novelist; and Ramalho Ortigão, a famous journalist, hadn’t yet started As Farpas, his monthly pamphlet that satirised contemporary society and politics. They were young and cocky when they decided to ridicule the reading tastes of their contemporaries, who loved melodramas and the infamous roman-feuilleton. Serialized in newspapers, this type of fiction focused on crime and tragic love stories, contained noble heroes and moustache-twirling villains and stereotypical characters, and took place in sordid urban settings and slums. The genre had been popularised by French writers like Eugène Sue (of the seminal The Mysteries of Paris, progenitor of countless imitators and admired by many including Dostoevsky) and Ponson du Terrail, whom the novel mentions several times. They took turns writing the chapters, without following a plan and forced to continue where the story had previously ended. In spite of this they managed to create a very coherent story. At the end of two months, the authors sent a final letter identifying themselves and declaring the narrative finished. The first book version came out in 1884, every bit as popular as the newspaper version. The novel’s success and longevity is curious because by all accounts this novel was made not to last. The roman-feuilleton did not produce many notable works. After all, who’s ever heard of Jules Claretie or Octave Feuillet? Appreciating this novel is problematic because it requires we actually know the drivel people read in the 19th century to understand what it’s satirising. Because only geniuses like Gogol and Flaubert survived into our times, we have a tendency to glamorise the 19th century. But readers then probably cared about literature as much as we do nowadays, and their reading of choice was not Dostoevsky and Henry James but soothing fiction where good triumphed, wickedness was punished, and someone married at the end. No, Hollywood did not invent anything. Like the modern best-seller, the roman-feuilleton was to be consumed and quickly forgotten to give way to the next serialized novel: what mattered is that the reader be engaged in something, all the time. Eça and Ortigão’s novel probably wouldn’t be remembered if not for its authors, but I’m glad it is.

When we get down to it, the story is banal: on the Sintra road, a nameless doctor and his writer friend, F, are kidnapped by four masked men, supposedly in order for the doctor to assist in a childbirth out of wedlock, in order to prevent a scandal. However when they arrive, blindfolded, at a building, they find a dead man, and it’s up to the doctor to determine if it was murder or suicide. His wallet has been stolen, and there’s a cup containing opium next to him. To complicate matters, a medical student, identified only as A.M.C., bursts into the room, first pretending not to have anything to do with it, then confessing to the murder. The doctor’s released but F is retained in order to give the masked men time to disappear, knowing the doctor won’t speak to the police until F is free. Nevertheless, still shaken by the events, he writes anonymously to the newspaper, giving a detailed account of what happened but withholding names. This in turns prompts the leader of the masked men, A.M.C. and others to write to the newspaper, each explaining their own role in the mystery. And it’s not a very interesting mystery: a Portuguese countess, the married W, falls in love with a British officer, Rytmel; they try to elope but give it up and she becomes his mistress instead. One day he visits her in Portugal, but she suspects that he’s in love with another woman. She drugs him in order to search for love letters in him, but accidentally kills him with opium. She enlists the help of A.M.C., a man she stumbles on in the street who agrees to help her. Unaware of this, the countess’ cousin discovers the body and stages the kidnapping in order to take a doctor to see Rytmel, to determine if he’s indeed dead. There are further complications. In the end, all the men who stayed in the building, including F, judge the fate of the countess and agree not to reveal anything to the authorities. But grief-stricken, the countess moves to a monastery to atone for her crime.

What a ridiculous story! If Eça and Ortigão wanted to create the most melodramatic, over-the-top novel in the world, they succeeded. The problem with satire, of course, is that it must become the thing it satirises.

Described in hindsight by the two authors as an ‘execrable novel’, it’s a curious novel within their oeuvres: one was a proponent of realism and naturalism, the other a journalist. And the roman-feuilleton is closer to the Gothic and Romantic imaginations. But I think their purpose was exactly to introduce techniques that created a more credible roman-feuilleton, one that dissolved the line between fiction and reality so well it could fool society. But many mystery and ‘sensation’ novels used the epistolary form, without fooling people. What then did this novel do that was different?

I think the difference is that the novel is self-aware and pokes fun at its own predictability and clichés. After the doctor describes the kidnapping on the abandoned road, he remarks: “Pure Ponson du Terrail! you will say, Mr. Editor. Evidently. It seems that life, even on the Sintra byways, can sometimes have the whim to be more romantic than what artistic verisimilitude demands. But I do not make art, I merely narrate facts.” Predicting the readers’ doubts and suspicions, he disarms them by acknowledging that the story is indeed strange. He places himself in their place, claiming that he’d doubt too, if it hadn’t happened to him.

Eça and Ortigão also employ certain techniques that add to the tale’s realism. For instance, the doctor forgets to mention the kidnapping’s date in the first letter, giving it only in the second one. This not only reveals a degree of spontaneity in his account of the facts but also implies that his mind is still upset and shaken by the events. He’s not thinking straight yet, with a cool head. In his frenzy to jot down the facts, he forgets things, exactly like it happens when he want to transmit something quickly to someone. Another trick is to allude to the fate of his friend, F, still hostage: although the doctor would like to reveal more, he fears doing so would put him in danger. Thus he gives us a valid reason not to reveal all the facts.

The daily nature of the narrative also allows the doctor to comment on events related to it, like the real but fruitless police investigation carried out after the first letter was published. By bringing the real world into the tale, he once again gives the impression of spontaneity. But my favourite touch comes when the doctor simply decides to give up writing and announces that he’s leaving for France, to forget the whole matter. He’s so terrified, he doesn’t even care about his friend or how the mystery will end. It’s a fine touch of psychological realism, in my opinion. A typical detective would doggedly pursue the truth. The doctor, instead, just wants to regain his peace of mind.

The best, however, is yet to come. I think Eça and Ortigão’s master stroke arrives when one certain Z intervenes on the doctor’s narrative. Z begins by claiming that he was enjoying the tale, thinking he had been reading the ‘most perfect’ roman-feuilleton yet – therefore not believing a word of it at all. But then he reads the letter in which A.M.C. is introduced. And Z remembers that he has a friend with the initials A.M.C who bears a resemblance to the description. He relates how he went looking for him, but did not find him at home. Without even knowing if his friend A.M.C. is the same A.M.C. of the tale, he launches into an passionate defence of him, and goes so far as to accuse the doctor of being the killer. He dismantles his narrative piece by piece, very convincingly I might add, and declares that the doctor invented it just in order to throw the scent off himself and to frame his innocent friend A.M.C. It’s brilliant! What we have here is a proto-meta-detective novel. The detective novel that contains its own refutation is of course a staple of the post-modernist detective novel. My favourite example comes from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: in it a student, Casaubon, entertains himself creating a super-conspiracy theory that encompasses all the conspiracy theories – the Masons, the Knights Templar, Thule, the Holy Grail, etc – which he calls The Plan. In his research he discovers a secret manuscript belonging to one Coronel Ardenti. This manuscript, full of strange riddles and characters, seems to be the real thing, the skeleton of The Plan, proving that his imagined conspiracy truly exists. But one day his wife, Lia, analyses it and points out that the Ardenti manuscript was nothing but a medieval delivery list. Thus she dismantles his crackpot theory, by which time, however, it’s taken a life of its own. This is what I was thinking of when I read Z’s intervention. More, when Z accuses the narrator of being the killer, Eça and Ortigão come very close to foreseeing a very famous Agatha Christie novel.

Indeed what makes this novel’s first half so fascinating is the way the authors play with the narrative. A superior classic like The Woman In White merely accumulates facts, putting the mystery together as if it were a puzzle. You’ll remember that the events in Wilkie Collins’ novel are narrated after they have all taken place; each narrator is aware of his place in the grand narrative. Eça and Ortigão, on the other hand, invite confusion; the full facts haven’t even been ascertained but there are already voices casting doubt on them. This is all wonderfully modern.

Nevertheless I don’t want to give the impression this novel is a lost masterpiece of the detective genre, nor were Eça and Ortigão that ahead of their time. The narrative inventiveness of the first half give way to a critique of customs and high society in the second half, which is more similar to the novels Eça would write alone, and finally everything is explained away in a commonplace manner. The masked leader and A.M.C. send their own explanations to the newspaper, neatly resolving all loose ends. Even so, there’s a curious aspect to the dénouement. Although the facts are reported, no one is brought to justice. A private court is set up by the masked men, A.M.C. and F to judge the countess, and she’s declared innocent because she killed accidentally and her freedom would pose no threat to society. But no 19th century novel could end with a wicked character going unpunished, so the countess, like the gambler or drunkard of the English Victorian novel who always ends up in Australia expiating his moral weakness amongst sheep, retreats into a monastery to atone for her sins. The notion that someone could actually do something morally wrong and not feel very bad about it, was still too much for that century to bear.

So there you have O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra. It’s a novel with many weaknesses and strengths. It’s not even my least favourite novel by Eça. If anything, it allows us to better appreciate Eça’s superb talent in his first solo novel, The Crime of Father Amaro.


  1. Fascinating. I'd not heard of this in my poking around Eça's work, but it certainly helps illuminate the playful, jovial, and somewhat mischievous quality of what I have read.

    But my favourite touch comes when the doctor simply decides to give up writing and announces that he’s leaving for France, to forget the whole matter.

    This seems such pure, distilled Eça that it might have seemed miraculous if - with the benefit of hindsight - no one would have managed to guess the author.

    1. Hello, seraillon.

      Playful and jovial are certainly words the authors would have used to describe this novel. Indeed one of the reasons they allowed the 'execrable' novel to remain in print is because they wanted people to have a glimpse of their youthful imaginations, even if it wasn't their best work. I think they were harsh on themselves - this is a very good novel, and certainly deserves to be translated. Perhaps one day Margaret Jull Costa will do it.

  2. Hey, "fascinating," that's the word I wanted to use!

    1. Hello, Tom.

      I think you'd love to read this novel, and I hope you can one day. I'm actually sorry I did because now I've run out of Eça's fiction. I'll have to immerse myself in his non-fiction.

  3. Oh my God, Dedalus Books has this on their website:

    "Margaret Jull Costa is currently translating the Mystery of the Sintra Road by Eca de Queiroz."