In the very remote probability that my readers follow Portuguese politics, they may have heard that the government was on the brink of collapse last week. For two years now a right-wing coalition has been governing the country, encumbered with the main task of implementing an austerity package designed by the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank – sovietically nicknamed Troika - after the previous socialist party gave the death blow to the economy thanks to its incompetence. Now contrary to enthusiastic reports – more concerned with saving face than saving the real economy – the measures dictated by the Troika and executed by the coalition are, as they did before in Greece, wrecking the country. So far nothing extraordinary. But the first shock came when Vítor Gaspar, the Minister of Finances, resigned, and not only resigned but in a rare and dangerous display of political honesty, published an open letter admitting that the austerity measures had been a resounding failure. Then days later the Prime-Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, appointed another person for the job without consulting his coalition partner, Paulo Portas, who until this week was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Indignant for having been left out, Portas announced his irrevocable resignation (key word is irrevocable) from the government, a decision that spelled the end of the coalition. The world shook in our little “garden brimmed by the sea,” to borrow Miguel Torga’s affectionate description of our “famous Republic of Illusitania,” to borrow Hipólito Raposo’s cynically punning description of our "Kingdom of Stupidity," to borrow from Jorge de Sena's damning name for our "Country of the Absurd," to borrow from Adolfo Casais Monteiro's own expression for our “irrelevant patch of land in a forgotten corner of Europe,” to borrow from my disenchanted self's preferred name for Portugal. The interest rates immediately increased (as if they hadn’t been increasing for over a month now, in spite of the official success history of the unsuccessful austerity measures) in anticipation of a political crisis, Passos Coelho immediately flew to Germany to conference with Angela Markel (giving credence to the conspiracy nutters’ belief that Portugal is nothing more than a German protectorate nowadays), two more ministers (of Portas’ party) resigned, pundits predicted that the government was going to fall, and a good segment of the population hoped it would. But never underestimate the thirst for power. There was a weekend emergency meeting between Passos Coelho, Portas and the President, Cavaco Silva (who, twenty years ago, was the Prime-Minister responsible for censuring José Saramago and forcing him into exile in the Canary Islands), and what came out of it this Saturday was this: Paulo Portas is now vice-prime-minister of Portugal (Portugal hasn’t had a vice-prime-minister since 1985, just to put things in their proper context), the ministry of economy has been handed over to a member of his party (meaning it now has more ministers in the government than before), the Minister of Finance continues to be the same person he objected to, and the unpopular government is not going to fall after all. In a masterful display of one-upmanship, Paulo Portas gambled with the Portuguese economy, so vulnerable to scares of this type, launched Europe into chaos for a week, lied to the public, and still managed to get a promotion. Move over, Machiavelli!
That Paulo Portas is currently the most despicable man on the face of the planet is of no relevance. This preamble, which I hope was not wholly uninteresting, serves merely to segue into the book we’ll be discussing today. A few months ago I re-read Eça de Queiroz’ genial and timely satire of Portuguese politics, O Conde Abranhos. Then I forgot about it because of other commitments. The timing, however, seems perfect to introduce a novella about a ruthless and power-hungry politician who rises to minister through a combination of guile, hypocrisy, and subservience.
As we all know, for we all of us here are studious admirers of Eça, he once planned (circa 1878) to write a cycle of novels, modelled after Balzac’s, to be named Scenes from Portuguese Life. The plan fell through but nevertheless he wrote several books, novellas and short-stories satirizing different aspects and situations of society and culture. O Conde de Abranhos was published posthumously in 1925, although the novella had been written, in France, in the year of 1879, one year before the publication of The Mandarin. Of all the books he wrote, this was his most impetuous foray into politics. Although he toyed with politics in The Maias and The Illustrious House of Ramires, none of his characters is so involved in the duplicitous backstage games of politics like the impressive Count of Abranhos.
Now the first thing to appreciate is that, although the book is named after the Count, minister of the kingdom, the novella is narrated by Z. Zagalo, his secretary, former Lisbon journalist, and sycophantic biographer. Before we advance any further, it’s important to bear in mind the warning that the great literary critic Jorge de Sena once gave: Portuguese literature was always an official literature, that is, it always depended on patronage for its existence and subsistence. It’s not accidental that Zagalo dedicates (even Luís de Camões had to dedicate The Lusiads to a King for a meagre stipend) the book to the Count’s second wife (his “balm,” by opposition to his first one, a shameless adulterer) with an accompaniment of compliments. Zagalo is what we today call an unreliable narrator. He’s really the great performer of the book, for although the Count only has to be, Zagalo has to transform, via revolting and over-the-top adulation, a ruthless, cowardly arriviste into a national hero. The virtues of this book are not so much in the events told, but in the voice they’re told in, making this mock-biography one of Eça’s highest achievements in style, wit and humour.
Zagalo doesn’t waste compliments in describing the merits of the late Count. Writing not so much a biography as a “biographical sketch” of his former master, an attempt to “recreate his moral being,” the text is nothing but hagiography under the guise of objectivity and historical fact, a panegyric to “glorify the memory of this eminent man, Orator, Publicist, Statesman, Legislator and Philosopher.”
Zagalo establishes the tone as soon as he laments his lack of talent as a writer to carry out the honour of penning the Count’s biography, an endeavour better suited to a “Plutarch, or, in more modern times, a Victor Cousin (whom he so admired), or even, contemporarily, an Herculano, a Rebelo, a Castilho – one of those stars that shine in our country’s firmament, with a light of eternal serenity.” To appreciate Eça’s sardonic enumeration of illustrious historians, it’s necessary to know a few details of Portuguese history and literature and his place in (or rather against) it. Rebelo da Silva (1822-1871) was a Romantic historian and author of historical novels. Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877) was Portugal’s first novelist, a major figure of Portuguese Romanticism, and one of his country’s greatest historians. António Feliciano de Castilho (1800-1875) was an Ultra-Romantic poet whom Eça and the younger writers of his generation, proponents of the new currents of realism and naturalism, considered a symbol of antiquated literature. Eça famously detested Romanticism. If Eça were a black hole, he’d swallow this bright firmament. To readers in tune with him, Zagalo’s role-models were worthless myth-makers without an ounce of credibility.
At the same time Zagalo praises his former master the events of the novella build up a monstrous psychological portrait of the Count. Fiercely reactionary, naturally cowardly, a hypocritical Christian, an unscrupulous arriviste, a treacherous liar. To be more precise, he hated the working class, neglected his poor father on his death bed, married for money, changed political convictions in order to remain aligned with power, contrived sinister systems to contain and erase the poor from society, at the University snitched on his colleagues and ingratiated himself with his teachers, and was appointed to a ministry for which he had no skills. His total lack of honour is so complete, and his instinct for self-preservation so developed, in one of the best episodes he informs the police of a duel in advance just to save his skin. And yet the tension of the text comes from these horrible traits that seep through the cracks of the gilded façade Zagalo tries to hide them under. The cognitive dissonance between the two levels of the story is, along with Zagalo’s voice, what makes this novella so fascinating. But going back to the Count.
Alípio Severo Abranhos is born into a humble family, even though Zagalo manages to discover a very distant, very tenuous connection to an old noble family, the Noronhas. This find, however, can’t erase the truth that the Count’s father is a poor country village tailor. The Count’s early years are spent in an intellectual desert, without tasting refinement and culture, “growing up in plain nature,” explains the narrator, who counterbalances this stain on his past with the popularity of Rousseau’s pedagogical methods. Thanks to the intercession of a rich aunt Alípio moves to her estate, where he gets the first glimpses of luxury and wealth. A priest takes care of his education, which means Alípio continues to grow up without any culture of sensibility. But this is hagiography, so Zagalo has to make his master look like a wunderkind. As such he finds traces of genius in everything he did, even in a simple adolescent quatrain:
God exists! All proves it,
Both you, proud Sun,
As you, humble twig
Where the nightingale sings!
I couldn’t suppress a bravo, respectful but heartfelt.
“The thought is nice, but don’t say it in Lisbon, Zagalinho. If the newspapers knew I once made verses… what a treat for the opposition…”
I stated, laughing:
“What a treat for the opposition, but what glory for the government…”
“Ah, boys’ stuff. We all, more or less, in our boyhood, were poets and republicans… Rather that than going around sipping ginger rum in bars and patronizing prostitutes… But when you arrive at the true political life, you have to put aside these tender feelings…”
Although the Count is more realistic about his poetic talents, or lack of, Zagalo doesn’t avoid extravagant comparisons. “I’m certain that the contemporary poets, the epic Hugos, the delicate Tennysons, the Campoamores of humoristic melancholia, would be proud of this colleague which I reveal to them, and who, even if he only played the lyre once, did it with such originality, vigour and elevation, that this simple isolated verse soars higher in Art’s heaven than many majestic symphonies by debauched Mussets or hysterical Baudelaires (…)”
Another characteristic the book highlights is the Count’s concern with his public image. After he becomes minister, his father asks him to set him up a tailor’s shop in Lisbon. The minister scoffs at the idea of seeing his name associated with tailoring, predicting that his parliamentary opponents would use it to undermine his reputation. (This scene, by the way, prefigures one from The Maias, in which Carlos removes a newspaper ad for his medical office when he finds it published next to an ad for a washerwoman.) Essentially Alípio abandons his father to die in poverty and sickness because his low condition embarrassed him. Nevertheless Zagalo manages to twist the facts to make it look like the evil, envious father was trying to sabotage his successful son. From the treatment of his father it’s not surprising the disturbing ideas – nothing remarkable for the 19th century, though – he had about the poor.
As a conservative who believed in a strong upper-class dominating the lower-class, the Count defended in parliament a war on the poor. “Isolate the poor!” is one of his historic mottos. He conceived a grandiose plan to remove poor people from society’s sight, through a serious of tenebrous jails that would surpass even the English Work-House.
The state would provide huge mansions, with cells supplied with a cot, where the wretched would be taken in. To gain admission, they’d have to prove to be of legal age, having carried out their religious duties, not having been convicted by courts (this to avoid that workers with subversive ideas who, through strike and debauch, scheme the State’s destruction, would, during unfortunate times, ask that same State to shelter them). They’d also have to prove the sobriety of their manners, never having lived a dissolute life nor having the habit of cursing and blaspheming. Once these elevated qualities were recognized with documents by priests, magistrates, etc., each wretched would receive a cell and a ration of soup equal to the one the inmates receive.
In the Count’s infernal prison, the “poor remains prisoner of charity! He loses the right to be hungry.” Once admitted, he can never get out unless he can prove he has a job waiting for him outside. “They’d lose the right to leave,” Zagalo explains. “In no human legislation do I know so fair, so efficient, so profoundly Christian, so benevolently social an institution.” This is just a sample of what Zagalo considers the Count’s “almost super-human kindness.”
How the Count’s social-political ideas are formed is outlined in the passages dealing with his higher education.
The first advantage of University, as a social institution, is the separation that is naturally formed between students and toilers, between those who only live from turning ideas or theories and those who live from work. Thus, the student is forever aware of this great social ideal: that there are two classes – one that knows, another that produces. The first, naturally, being the brain, governs; the second, being the hand, maintains, dresses, feeds, pays and gives shoes to the first.
At the University, Alípio doesn’t learn to think but to accept authority, recognise dogmas and maintain order. “Free thinking is the principle of revolution,” he says. “What is order? – The acceptance of adopted ideas. If you get boys used not to accept any idea from their masters without verifying if it’s exact, you run the risk of seeing them, later, reject any institution in their country without confirming if it’s fair. We’d then have the spirit of the revolution, which ends in social catastrophes!” He’s a despicable student, known for snitching on his classmates and adulating his teachers. His academic career is impeccable.
After he finishes his higher education he joins the staff of a political newspaper, Bandeira Nacional, under the protection of a state counsellor, Gama Torres, although Zagalo insists the protection was merely platonic. “He didn’t give it money because, being a family man, he rightly understood that politics should not spend fortunes, but, on the contrary, produce them. And he gave no ideas either, for, in spite of his elevated education, which makes him one of our great contemporaries, his prudence, his reserve were such that rare was the time when one of his clear opinions was heard.” The newspaper was little more than a racketeering scheme, attacking or defending the government for money and whenever it best suited it. In it Alípio learns to write not out of conviction but in harmony with vested interests, going so far as to pen articles against governmental ideas he privately agrees with.
His career as a deputy soars thanks to the oratorical skills he demonstrates in parliament. Zagalo reveals, not without pride, that his elegant speeches become part of the school syllabus. However the Count’s political volatility gets him in trouble when he makes an about-face during a parliamentary session and abandons his party, in power but about to fall, to join the opposition, which has strong chances of gaining power. His betrayal doesn’t pass unnoticed to his former colleagues and a deputy challenges him to a duel. As the rules of duelling demand, Alípio appoints two seconds; but instead of finding a peaceful solution, as rules also demand seconds do, the two “pedants of the point of honour” set up a sword duel. Like the coward he is, he alerts the police in advance so that they interrupt the duel, thinking this will get him off the hook. Instead he offends his own seconds, who threaten to duel with him too if he does it again. Forced into a duel he doesn’t want to have, he receives a minor cut in the ear, which satisfies his opponent, but immediately his new party starts inflating his legend as a fearful swordsman.
Zagalo concludes his narrative with Alípio’s triumphant rise to Minister of the Navy, a job for which he has no talent, skills, or vocation (being afraid of water), but that’s not unusual in Portugal, where a minister can be in charge of defence in one administration and in a future one be in charge of foreign affairs, like it happened with Vice-Prime-Minister Paulo Portas, former journalist. (Former Zagalo?)
It’s a cliché to say that Eça’s books paint a timeless portrait of a Portugal that hasn’t changed since his death, but in the case of O Conde Abranhos that’s absolutely true. At the same time we could argue this is unlike any other book he has ever written. This is probably the most revolutionary book of his oeuvre, and manages to present a more tangible reality than all the crude and outdated neo-realist novels that dominated Portuguese letters for most of the 20th century. The problems criticised by this book regarding the objectivity of our newspapers, the quality of our educational system, the disgusting the careerism in the civil service, and our politicians’ obsessions with titles and honours, haven’t changed since 1879. First of all there’s present in it the very modern abysm between the ruling and working classes, as seen in the Count’s reactionary ideology:
The people are like one of those monstrous Indian elephants that I’ve heard of: of an indomitable strength and of a laughable simplicity, the whole world, through violence, can’t force it to walk against its will, and a child, through cleverness, makes it perform grotesque summersaults. The people have the force of an element and a regiment can’t impose upon them an idea that a simple crafty lawyer, speechifying, can make them accept without effort. These were already old truths in the ancient Hellenic world. The Polignacs, the Guizots, the Cabrais, are therefore guilty, not of lack of civilization, but of lack of cunning. Why will you fight an invincible monster, when it’s so simple to trick it?
The novella is set in the years after the Liberal Wars of the 1830s that changed Portugal’s Constitution to allow elections of deputies and to grant more power to the parliament. In effect, though, this only replaced parasitic courtiers with self-serving politicians. “I, who am the government,” the Count explains to Zagalo, “weak but cunning, apparently give Sovereignty to the people, which is strong and simple. But since the lack of education keeps them in imbecility, and the sleeping of consciousness dulls them into indifference, I make them exercise that sovereignty in my own benefit… As to their benefit… Goodbye, dear fellow!”
If the politicians in Portugal haven’t changed visibly since the time Eça wrote this, it’s unsurprising that education and the press have changed very little. Our schools still continue to produce submissive proles instead of free-thinking citizens. And our newspapers (but especially our TV channels) continue to swarm with modern Zagalos. Last week dozens of them invaded our TV screens, these skilful spin masters and Olympic-level mental gymnastics athletes, Portas’ Zagalos and Passos Coelho’s Zagalos, Zagalos for the left and Zagalos for the right, with their carefully-prepared speeches ready to use in airtime to praise their masters or inveigh against their masters’ enemies. After all the Count may be dead when Zagalo presents his biography to posterity, but Zagalo is not without a master. He effaces himself from the narrative’s events, but already he’s begging favours from the widow. A Zagalo is never finished looking for a master.