Thursday, 18 June 2015

A New Way of Reading The Relic

Of the dozens of books I read for the Eça de Queiroz Month my favorite was the shortest one. Inside one of them I came across the title of a book I had never heard of; in fact it was so old it was out of print. But after a quick search at online sellers I acquired a copy. Ernesto Guerra da Cal (1911-1994), a Galician, is considered one of the greatest Eça scholars. In 1954 he published the book Língua e estilo de Eça de Queirós which has earned a reputation as the first serious, rigorous study of Eça’s style and language. Lots of other books cite it or at least mention it. I bought it weeks ago but have not yet read it. He also kept and organized (until the 1980s, I think) a bibliography on Eça: every mention in a book, an article, a newspaper, a letter. I can only imagine what it must be to peruse that. But the book I actually read and love was a lecture he gave at the University of Coimbra in 1971, called A Relíquia – romance picaresco e cervantino. In it he points out the connections between Eça’s novel and the picaresque tradition, as well as Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It also puts forth an interesting theory of The Relic as a supernatural novel.

Let’s recap: in 1880 The Mandarin came out. Although commercially successful, the novella came under fire with some critics accusing Eça of betraying the Realist style and “with it militant and reformist art,” says Guerra da Cal. We must question the honesty of that sense of betrayal. Many critics detested Realism and probably got onto that bandwagon just to throw jabs at him. Nevertheless Eça was tiring of Realism because it ostracized literature’s imaginative side. Eça had always had a whimsical, fantastic vein, since his college days writing for Gazeta de Portugal. Although his discovery of Flaubert was a revolution, it also forced him to suppress his natural tendency, and creative ease, for the supernatural. With time, though, it became harder to keep that instinct down. “The result of the effort to solve this internal dichotomy is a specific style of narration wherein, in a extremely original symbiosis, the loose flight of Romantic fancy and the uncompromising realist probity mixed,” says Guerra da Cal. This new style reached its apotheosis with The Relic.

We now know that from the start it was badly received. The ineffable Pinheiro Chagas chastised it for the unrealistic, to him anyway, dream Raposo dreams. For Chagas it was unlikely, in fact illogical that Raposo, a cynical, hypocritical good-for-nothing could ever have the long, refined, beautiful and erudite dream that dominates the novel’s third chapter. (It’s like he had read James Wood’s little theory about free indirect style.) This was Chagas, who continued to put down Realism until his death in 1895, using its arguments to deride Eça’s non-Realist book. This despite the fact that Eça, in the preface, claimed to “enjoy full aesthetic license” in its writing.

Scholars continued to find the novel problematic for decades. João Gaspar Simões, considered Eça’s greatest biographer, condemned it in Chagas’ vein. It forced its supporters, not so much to defend, as to make allowances for it: ignore the flaws, focus on the good bits. The tide started to change in 1962 when Alberto Machado da Rosa published Eça, Discípulo de Machado?, containing a brief chapter where he described The Relic as a picaresque novel. But it wasn’t until Guerra da Cal that we got a thorough explanation of its genre affinities.

He begins by stressing that the picaresque cannot be judged by the rules of the realist novel. “Who would seriously dare ask why Lazarillo de Tormes, or Guzmán de Alfarache or Pablo de Segovia, with even far lower origins and a far more rudimentary literary education than the Coimbra graduate Raposo, can show up as the putative authors of three of the books that are the example of the highest stylistic refinement of the entire Spanish-language literature and the sharpest and super-educated perception of values? Neither the anonymous and cultivated humanist who hid behind Lazarillo, nor Mateo Alemán, nor D. Francisco de Quevedo renounced their artistic personality when they embodied their adventurers and wretched heroes. And yet no one has ever dared accuse those seminal jewels of the modern universal novel of lacking verisimilitude. A type of verisimilitude they never intended to have.” And still apropos of verisimilitude, he adds: “The middle-class ways of Portuguese life at the time – projected with relative descriptive equanimity in The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio – in The Relic transform into a chimerical puppet dance which is the strange reflection of a living reality, comically devalued. This is the picaresque vision of society seen on Quevedo’s mirror. A gallery of fantastic creatures in which the only verisimilitude is caricature’s comical truth.” Eça wasn’t wrong; his critics just didn’t understand he was working in a different tradition.

He points out other affinities: there’s the journey: in the same way many of the picaresque protagonists journey across the Peninsula, Raposo travels to the Holy Land; there is the identical personality: he’s deceitful and resourceful like his ancestors, prone to lying to advance his cause and quite cynical; as a picaresque character, Raposo lacks noble feelings: he’s astute and callous. In fact the name itself alludes to these traits: a raposo is a male fox, a symbol of cunningness. At the same time his honesty about his amorality, his playful self-deprecation make him a seductive figure, in spite of his negative traits, like his picaresque ancestors. There’s also what Guerra da Cal calls the “hunger epic:” the picaresque character cheats and lies to survive, to solve the most basic of human needs: getting food; here he says that Raposo’s goal is different, “the protagonist’s main and vital goal, instead of satisfying hunger, is sating lust.” Although that’s correct, I think the venerable scholar fails to realize that Raposo is just an inverted picaresque protagonist: he’s already rich – what he wants is to prevent his becoming a pauper; that’s why he lies to Auntie, that’s why be brings a fake relic to awe the pious old lady into bequeathing her fortune to him. Guerra da Cal also points out the finale’s moralizing – Raposo reforms himself and becomes a respectable family man – to be in line with picaresque fiction’s own moralizing purposes. The scholar also finds The Swindler’s “aesthetics of the grotesque” in Auntie, considering it a precursor of Valle-Inclán’s esperpento. All of this just goes to show that Eça understand the Spanish literary legacy better than the critics who failed to understand what he was attempting, and achieving gracefully according to Guerra da Cal.

He puts forth an even more interesting way of reading the novel: he suggests reading the time travel in Chapter III, not a as dream Raposo has, but as an actual supernatural event. In this aspect Guerra da Cal argues that Eça had Cervantes as a model. “Eça de Queiroz – following Cervantes’ example regarding D. Quixote’s visions at the Cave of Montesinos – leaves the matter uncertain.” This of course meant picking up my copy of Don Quixote: it’s volume II, chapters XXII, XXIII and XXIV. The good knight narrates about finding an underground kingdom inside a cave and spending three days with bewitched people. After relating these events, the narrator asks the reader to make up his mind whether they actually happened. Then Guerra da Cal points out textual evidence to support a supernatural event: Raposo, for instance, never refers to these events as a dream; in fact in the preface he says that he “miraculously witnessed scandalous events.” In Chapter III a character called Eliezer similarly tells to Raposo and Topsius that “today you miraculously belong to Israel.” In Chapter II Raposo, reminiscing about his trip into the desert, even remarks about “the supreme revelation the Lord had in store for me!” Guerra da Cal also notices that Raposo sleeps inside the so-called dream, and even worries about being stuck in the past forever. Also there’s never a transition scene where he wakes up into the real world. In fact at the end of the chapter he’s wide awake and merely ambles about, finding his way into his camp. This is quite a fascinating interpretation of the novel and I find it quite enthralling.

Finally Guerra da Cal discusses several connections between this novel and Don Quixote. First of all there’s the relationship between Raposo and Topsius, who resemble Sancho and Don Quixote: Raposo, like Sancho, is a fool more concerned with the senses and fulfilling needs; Topsius is line with the knight’s idealism and nobility. But the scholar also remarks that both the Don and Raposo have similar journeys: both live under delusions and the destruction of said delusions leads to their becoming sane. In the Don’s case is realizing he’s not a real knight but a man called Alonso Quijano; Raposo, when he’s unmasked as a scheming hypocrite, undergoes a moral transformation: he learns to reject falsehood and becomes an honest man.

But the main resemblance to Don Quixote, to him, is what he calls “metaphysical relativism.” For him The Relic attacks physical and spiritual certainties: both faith and science have no truth, they’re incomplete models of reality, living under the “universal empire of illusion.” Let’s not forget that in 1885, around the time he was rewriting the novel, he sent a letter to his friend the Count of Ficalho where he concluded that “history will always be a great fantasy.” In the novel, Raposo returns from the Holy Land with a package purporting to contain a holy relic for Auntie; when she unwraps it she finds the nightgown belonging to a part-time prostitute called Mary that Raposo enjoyed in Alexandria. Kicked out of her house, after some more travails Raposo experiences a moral revolution and decides to live as a good man forever, apparently vindicating the importance of honesty. But Raposo’s final reflection, as an older man remembering these events, blames himself for not having had the courage to declare the nightgown a holy relic. “Yes! When instead of a martyr’s crown a sinful gown appeared at Auntie’s altar I should have shouted with safety: ‘Behold the relic! I wanted to surprise you. It’s not the Crown of Thorns. It’s the nightgown of the Holy Mary Magdalene!... She gave it to me in the desert…!’ The priests who buzz around Auntie, aware of their duty to uphold the dogmas, would have confirmed it and Auntie would have believed them, for her nature is to believe their word, not to have doubts. But Raposo “lacked that shameless courage to proclaim, which, hitting the Earth with a strong foot, or palely rising its eyes to the Sky – creates, through universal delusion – Sciences and Religions.” And he likens the prostitute’s nightgown transubstantiated into a holy relic with Don Quixote’s pot turned into a helmet. “The world of appearances is the world of essences,” says Guerra da Cal. Through man’s willpower, anything can be transformed into something else, man’s ability to believe is limitless. This theory so fascinated Miguel de Unamuno, that he explored The Relic’s connection to Cervantes in his classic study, Our Lord Don Quixote.

In less than 50 pages, Ernesto Guerra da Cal introduces and develops three unexpected ideas about The Relic and points the reader to further interesting books. Since this is my favorite Eça de Queiroz novel, discovering and reading his brilliant lecture has more than justified this month.


  1. Wow - "quite enthralling" indeed! The power of the argument is supported for me by my having not even considered - until the end of the time-traveling chapter - that the vision was a dream, despite the preceding chapter ending with Raposo falling asleep. I just kept marveling at the prescience of the novel, at the author's playfulness with the situation. Here he is, anticipating Mel Brooks' "2,000 Year Old Man"! It's astounding that so many critics missed the announcement in the preface concerning full aesthetic license.

    1. Poor Eça was a victim of his own medicine: he was a tireless promotor of Naturalism, and was so efficient that reviewers began seeing him only through the narrowness of that school.

      I think, however, that we have the advantage of reading it with a 20th century experience in fiction. This novel was ahead of its time, and I think that's why it does so well with modern readers.

    2. He seems so far ahead of his time. There's an interesting prediction early in the novel of future "holocausts" directed at Jews (I'd be curious to know how this reads in the original Portuguese).

      Do you know of any criticism that addresses The Relic's relation to Flaubert's Salammbo and/or The Temptation of St. Anthony? I almost felt Eça was saying of Flaubert, "Oh come on - anyone can write a sort of risqué historical novel, but look - I've done that and tied it to Lisbon society, made a tossed salad of religion, and written a travelogue on top of it all!" It's that amalgam that strikes me as so modern - well, that and the daringness with which he picked apart the Passion tale.

    3. To the best of my knowledge, although I may be wrong about it, The Relic is one of Eça's least studied novels, although it's highly popular with readers.