Thursday, 11 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: The Mandarin

In 1880 Eça de Queiroz published a novella called The Mandarin. Deviating from previous novels like The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio, it looked back to his younger, satanic days when he wrote under the aegis of Poe and Baudelaire. It’s a comical fantasy novel about an amanuensis called Teodoro, a disgruntled civil servant who one day meets a figure, the Devil probably, in his room, offering him a simple deal: if he rings a bell a Mandarin on the other side of the world dies and Teodoro will inherit his vast fortune. Immediately tempted, he rings it and sometime later he receives news that he’s become the heir of a dead mandarin. He quits his job and begins a life of dissolution. But after a while he begins seeing the image of the dead mandarin in front of him, mutely haunting him. In order to free himself from this curse, he travels to China hoping to find his family and give them part of the fortune.

The Mandarin adds little to Eça’s reputation, but it’s a fun book nevertheless.

Teodoro is physically grotesque and spiritually feeble. “Unfortunately I had a hump – from all my bowing back at the University, walking backwards like a frightened magpie before the Professors; at the office, lowering my head at my General Directors. In any event this attitude suits a graduate; it keeps discipline in a well-organized State; and it assured my Sunday tranquility, the use of some white clothes, and twenty thousand monthly réis.” Like most Eça protagonists, he craves money without the intention of earning it. “It pained me the wish of being able to dine at the Central Hotel with champagne, to shake the lovely hand of a viscountess, and at least twice a week to fall asleep, in a mute ecstasy, over Venus’ fresh breast. Oh! Young men heading lively towards S. Carlos, stuffed in expensive coats glittering with a night tie! Oh coaches crowded with Andaluzian women, rolling toward the bull-fights – how many times you’ve made me sigh!”

But when we first meet him, he’s a lowly keeping an ordinary life, trying not to cause waves and trying to get rich the way people usually do: through lottery tickets. “I was never excessively unhappy – because I don’t have an imagination: I didn’t consume myself, prowling and coveting around fictional paradises, born from my own soul as thirsty as clouds are for a lake’s evaporation; on looking at the bright stars, I didn’t sigh after a Romeo-like love, or for a Camors-like social glory. I’m a positivist. I only aspired at the rational, at the tangible, at what had already been achieved by others in my neighborhood, at what is accessible to a graduate. And I accepted it, like someone who at a table d'hôtel chews a bit of dry dread waiting for the arrival of a rich place of Charlotte russe. Happiness would come: and to hurry it up I did everything I should do as a Portuguese and a constitutional man – I prayed it every night to Our Lady of Sorrows, and I bought lottery tickets.” His incoherent worship, in spite of his positivist beliefs, provides one of the novella’s best passages: “It is true, I pray to Our Lady of Sorrows because, the same way I asked my boss to watch my play; the same way I begged an MP to obtain my twenty thousand réis; in order to avoid tuberculosis, angina pectoris, a knife wound, a gutter fever, the leg-breaking slippery orange rind, other public evils I likewise need a super-human protection. Whether through small-talk or through incense the prudent man must know how to adulate from the palace to Paradise. With a neighborhood connection, and a mystical connection in the Sky – the graduate’s fate is safe.”

As a rational man, he doesn’t believe in the Devil, “the same way I never believed in God. I never said it aloud, or wrote in newspapers, in order not to displease the public powers entrusted with keeping respect for these entities.” But this all changes when the Devil visits him. “And I saw him, seated very peacefully, a stocky individual, all dressed in black, top hat, with both hands, inside black gloves, gravely leaning on the handle of an umbrella. He had nothing phantastical. He seemed so contemporary, so regular, so middle class as if he had come from my office.” The Devil tempts him, although truth be said he doesn’t need a lot to persuade him. “I’ll just bring this fact to your attention: there are beings called Women – different from those you know, and which are called Females. These beings, Teodoro, in my time, circa page 3 of the Bible, externally only wore a vine leaf. Nowadays, Teodoro, it’s a whole symphony, an entire artful and delicate poem of laces, baptistes, satins, flowers, jewels, cashmeres, gauzes and velvets… Imagine the unspeakable satisfaction a Christian’s five fingers will have in examining, touching these soft wonders; but understand also that it’s not with change for an honest pound that these cherub’s bills are paid… But there’s even better, Teodoro: their golden or dark hair, holding in their bangs the symbolic appearance of the two great human temptations – hunger for precious metal and the knowledge of the transcendental absolute. And there’s more: their marble-coloured arms, with the freshness of a dewy lily; their breasts, on which the great Praxiteles modeled his Cup, the purest and most ideal line since Antiquity… Once upon a time those breasts (in the mind of that naïve Elder who made them, who fabricated the world, and whose centennial enmity halts me from speaking his name) were destined to mankind’s solemn nutrition; but relax, Teodoro, nowadays no rational mommy exposes them with that deteriorating and severe function; they’re only meant to glisten, nestled in laces, under the light of soirees – and for other secret uses. Decorum stops me from proceeding in this radiant explanation of the beauties that constitute the Fatal Feminine… Anyway your eyes twinkle already… Now all these things, Teodoro, are beyond, infinitely beyond your twenty thousand réis a month… At least confess that these words have the venerable seal of truth!...”

He rings the bell, becomes rich. Doubts appear. “What was the use of so many millions at last, if every day they only brought me the desolating confirmation of human vileness? And so, at the shock of so much gold, the universe’s moral beauty disappeared from my eyes like smoke! A mystical sadness invaded me. I fell on a chair, and with my face between my hands I cried abundantly.” That’s horrible. But since this is an Eça de Queiroz novel, contemplation never lasts long. In fact whenever contemplation, introspection, whatever, showed up you can predict a further plunge into corruption and dissolution is right around the corner. “At the moment rockets burst in the distance. I remembered it was Sunday, bull-fights day: suddenly a vision sparkled, burned, attracting me deliciously – it was watching bull-fighting from a box; next diner with Champagne; at night an orgy, as an initiation! I ran to the table, stuffed my pockets with London bonds. I went down the street with a vulture’s furor piercing the air against the prey.” In the bank he exchanges his bonds for gold: “I filled my pockets, slowly, by the handful: and in the street, heavy, I lifted myself into a coach. I felt fat, I felt obese; I had in my mouth the flavor of gold, a dryness of gold dust on the skin of my hands: house walls seemed to glitter like long gold blades: and inside my mind I heard a deaf noise where metals clanged – like the movement of an ocean which rolled gold bars amidst the waves.”

Everything that follows is predictable. He quits his job, surrounds himself with luxuries, becomes selfish, indulges in every vice, organizes vast orgies, experiences every sensation. A lover’s betrayal turns him into a cynic. “After that I forever doubted blonde Angels who keep in their blue eyes the reflection of shifty skies: atop my gold I allowed corrosive Mephistophelean chuckles to fall upon Innocence, Decency and other idealisms: and I coldly organized an animal, grandiose and cynical existence.” Around him a court of parasites coalesces to receive his money or benefit from his influence. “Sometimes I consented in receiving some old man with a historical title – he paraded into the room, almost mopping the rug with his white hairs, stuttering adulations; and smashing on his chest a hand with strong veins where the blood of three centuries ran, he immediately offered me a beloved daughter, to be my wife or my concubine.” Or women wrote to him: “If my sickly stare caught a woman by chance in the street – next day she quickly sent me a letter where this creature, either wife or prostitute, offered me her nudity, her love, and all the complacencies of lust.” And politicians also try to entice him. “Every day I was offered the presidency of a ministry or the direction of some brotherhood. I always refused, disgusted.” But he doesn’t mind lending Money. “I made loans to kings, I subsidized wars – and I was owed money by every Latin republic on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.”

It should be a satisfied, if empty, life were it not for the ghost of the Mandarin. His frequent presence leads Teodoro, with whatever is left of a conscience in him, to consider the poverty his descendants must be enduring after being deprived of the dead man’s fortune. In his guilty mind he imagines the dead Mandarin to have been a scholar, an erudite men, a fair and wise man, a mainstay of his nation, without whom it’d crumble into chaos. “My friends, I knew the colossal remorse of having ruined an empire!” So he tries to atone via charity. He sets off to China, where he meets the Russian ambassador, Camilloff, who tries to help him out. And this segues into one of my favorite dialogues:

   “Does my esteemed guest know Chinese?” he asked me suddenly, staring his wise eyes at me.
   “I know two important words, general: Mandarin and tea.”
   “He passed his strong-veined hands over the fearful scar splitting his bald head:
   Mandarin, my friend, is not a Chinese word, and no one understands it in China. It’s the name used in the 16th century by sailors from your country, from your lovely country…”
   “When we still had sailors…” I murmured, sighing.
   He also sighed, out of politeness, and continued:
   “… That your sailors gave to Chinese civil servants. It comes from your verb, from your pretty verb…”
   “When we still had verbs…” I snarled with the instinctive habit of slandering the nation.
   He stationed his round old male eye on me for a moment – and proceeded patiently and gravely:
   “From your pretty verb mandar… So you’re left with tea.” (1)

In China Teodoro learns how hard it is to produce good. His original plans, of finding the family, become a quick donation. Regarding his proposal of offering the money to the kingdom, Camilloff takes a pragmatic view: “A mistake, a considerable mistake, young man! Those millions would never reach the imperial treasure. They’d remain in the fathomless pockets of the ruling classes: they’d be spent on gardens, on porcelain collections, on rugs for the floor, on silks for concubines: they’d no relief to a single starved Chinese, nor would they fix one single stone on a public road… They’re enrich the Asian orgy. Ti-Chin-Fu’s soul must know the Empire well: and that would not please him.”

Teodoro suggests private philanthropy, but the general rebukes him again. “’Deadly,’ the general said frowning fearfully. ‘The imperial court immediately would see in that a political ambition, the twisted plan to gain the favors of the rabble, a danger for the Dynasty. My good friend would be decapitated… It’s serious…”

The general recommends looking for the dead mandarin’s family, giving them a few million, organizing a magnificent funeral. Very kindly the general uses his connections to make inquiries, leaving Teodoro to seduce his wife, Vladimira. “We spoke a lot about Europe, Nihilism, Zola, Leo XIII, and Sarah Bernhardt’s slimness…” Months pass as he waits for news to arrive. But enjoying himself he starts forgetting his bad conscience and his mission; furthermore the ghost has stopped pestering him. When Camilloff finally gives him good news, Teodoro is reluctant to leave and abandon his new comfortable life with Vladimira. “Consciousness in me was like a sleeping dove,” he laments as he faces the prospect of going on the road to the ends of the kingdom.

To make matters worse, on his journey news spread that he’s a rich man carrying chests full of gold, which prompts mobs of poor people to attack him and ransack his belongings. After escaping and getting lost in China he finds aid in a European mission, run by Christian priests, living there since the time the Portuguese arrived. He spends months in their company, and briefly becomes infatuated with God. But when he receives a letter from Camilloff he calls off his search for the mandarin’s family and returns to Europe. The last straw is that the family he was traveling to meet when he was attacked was the wrong family; Camilloff thinks he had found the right one this time, but Teodoro no longer cares. Like many Eça characters, he has spontaneous bursts of energy that quickly dissipate: he can become obsessed with something, but only for a short time. He tried to be a good man, it didn’t work out so he’s back to being his usual selfish self. Unfortunately outside China the ghosts reappears. Unable to enjoy his millions in peace, isolates himself from the world. “Since then an enervating tedium has kept me on the sofa for weeks on end, silent and gloomy, thinking about the happiness of not-being…”

This novella doesn’t deviate a lot from the books Eça wrote during this period: To The Capital, Alves & C., The Relic. All of them deal with two ideas: characters who join the demimonde only to try to escape it back to a moral existence; and characters enduring many travails on their road to goodness. Although Eça saw his fiction as a tool in the service of social and moral reform, his novels tell a different tale in that they show the hardships of virtue.

1 Mandar means to rule, to lead, to give out orders.

Note: The translations belong to me. Margaret Jull Costa has a much better translation.


  1. How is Eca's description of China, does he go into details? Has he even been to China?!

    1. Eça was never in China; in Cuba he had contact with Chinese workers, who moved there from Macau to work in the sugar cane plantations.

      This is a novella, around 50 pages, so he keeps description to a minimum; he's no Fernão Mendes Pinto.

  2. No, China in this work has little to do with Chinese realities. It's the mysterious China of the 19th century imagination, the same that produced Victor Hugo's astonishing Chinese room in his Paris home on Place de Vosges. Still, it's a story I much enjoyed, and one of the few I know that acknowledges the Portuguese presence in the MIddle Kingdom (though I'm sure you know of perhaps many others, Miguel).

    1. Oh yeah, our literature is full of books about China; the Portuguese were the first to visit it since Marco Polo's journey. Fernão Mendes Pinto was the liveliest of travelers and his accounts read like a good adventure book.

    2. I still have the Mendes Pinto out from the library, and am having a ball dipping into it from time to time.

    3. Well, I hope one day you give us one of your fine posts on it!