Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: The Relic

During Eça de Queiroz’ short-lived contributions to As Farpas, this satirical magazine reported that it was common for missionaries to sell relics in Lisbon. His comical masterpiece, The Relic, may have grown from that seed of an idea. Published in 1887, the novel was in line with The Mandarin as Eça began to drift away from Realism. At its essence a farce, the novel takes the form of a memoir the narrator, Teodorico Raposo, writes of a journey to the Holy Land in his youth. However it’s more complicated than that: the young Raposo was a cynical and duplicitous good-for-nothing who lived thanks to the mercy of Auntie, the widow of Commander G. Godinho, a rich relative who took him in when his father died. “Then, on a Carnival night, father died suddenly, from an apoplexy, on going down our house’s stone staircase, masked as a bear to go to the ball at Mmes. Macedo’s.” Thanks to her allowance Raposo enjoys a secret life of debauchery, secret because her fanatical piousness abhors any mention or trace of sinfulness. This obligates the sex-crazed, whore-mongering Raposo to live a double life: in front of Auntie he pretends to be virtuous, religious and pure; on her back he consorts with kept women and indulges in every possible vice. This tenuous equilibrium continues until he learns that Auntie has decided, upon her death, to bequeath all her fortune and property to the Church. The idea of becoming an ordinary man, without access to her money, and of having to work for a living sickens him, so he concocts a crazy plot to travel to Jerusalem, find a holy relic and bring it to her: this journey, which would purify his and her soul, would forever ingratiate him with Auntie and secure his inheritance. The plan of course fails.

According to the scholar Ernesto Guerra da Cal, The Relic is a triptych: chapters I and II constitute the first act; the long chapter III, almost one third of the novel, is the second act; and finally chapters IV and V compose the final act. The first act mostly shows Raposo living a bohemian, lust-ridden life in Lisbon’s demimonde. His life, since infancy until his return from the Holy Land, is a pursuit of sex. His earliest memory of becoming fascinated by women is when he’s first travelling to meet Auntie, and stays at an inn where an English woman, “tall and white, with a strong froufrou of white silks, spreading a musky scent,” enthralled him. His stay at Auntie’s, in spite of her austerity, and of the religious education he receives, does not subdue his fast-growing instincts. “We lived at Campo de Sant’Anna. On going down to Chiado, I stopped at a picture shop, in front of the languid painting of a blonde woman, with her breasts bared, reclining on a tiger skin, and sustaining at the end of her fine fingertips a heavy pearl necklace.” However he has to hide these yearnings, since Auntie hates sex. “Because for aunt Patrocínio every human action, happening outside church portals, consisted in going after pants or going after skirts – and both sweet natural impulses were equally odious to her!” And “she almost considered Nature obscene for having created two sexes.” This not only means he has to spend great efforts to avoid getting caught, but he must also use subterfuges to maintain the illusion that he’s as well-behaved as a choir boy. He brings sticks of incense in his pockets to burn after whoring, so Auntie will only smell “the rich smell of church” on his clothes; he panics when Auntie’s friends meet him coming out of joints; he pretends to lose letters so that she’ll find them and read them, where he proclaims to abjure wantonness and women. In the meantime he continues to dream of the life of dissolution he’ll enjoy when she dies.

Raposo is anxious and even wishes her death so he can inherit her fortune. But a chance meeting with one of the priests who patronizes her residence and constitutes a small devoted court that worships her money too, leads him to discover that Auntie has other plans for her money. Although his rival is none other than Jesus Christ, Raposo is not willing to go down without a fight. “Because now I had made up my mind not to leave the pleasurable fortune of Commander G. Godinho to Jesus, son of Mary. What! It’s not enough for the Lord to have his countless treasures; the somber marble cathedrals that clog up the earth and saddened it; the inscriptions, the credit notes that human piety constantly writes in his name; the golden decorations States place at its nail-riddled feet; the vests, the chalices, the diamond cufflinks he wears in his shirt, in his church of Grace? And he came back, from the top of his rod, his eyes voracious for a silver tea-pot, and a few insipid buildings downtown! Very well! We’ll fight for these petty, fleeting belongings – you, o son of the Carpenter, showing Auntie the wounds you received for her one afternoon in a barbarian Asian town, and me worshipping that wound with so much fuss and so much joy that Auntie won’t know where the merit lies, if in you who died loving us too much, if in me who wish to die for not knowing how to love you enough!...”

However even his initial plan of visiting several churches a day to attend as many masses as possible (it’s easier than it seems, as anyone who’s visited Lisbon and seen a church in every corner can attest) pales in comparison to his procession to Jerusalem to fetch a relic. The idea at first didn’t wow him. As the old Raposo writes in the preface, “Jerusalem is a Turkish village, with destitute back alleys, stuffed between mud-coloured walls, and stinking under the sun to the sound of sad bells.” And adds: “This Gospel country, which fascinates sensitive mankind so much, is far less interesting than my dry and paternal Alentejo… nor do I think lands favoured by a messianic presence ever gain anything in grace or splendor.” This blasé attitude resembles Eça’s own indifference to Egypt on his 1869 trip. But writing him in character, in chapter II Eça shows Raposo making the most of the unfortunate situation of abandoning his beloved whorehouses and joints. “But then I began thinking that, in order to reach that soil of penitence, I had to cross amiable, feminine and party-filled regions. First it was Andaluzia, the orange tree-scented land of Our Lady of Araceli, where women just by putting two carnations on their hair and wearing a scarlet shawl, tame the most rebel of hearts, may her grace be praised! Farther ahead was Naples – and its dark, warm streets, with Holy Virgin altarpieces and smelling of women, like a brothel’s corridor. Then farther away was Greece: ever since my Rhetoric studies it always struck me as a wood of sacred laurel trees where temple porticoes glisten, and in the shaded places where doves coo, Venus suddenly appears, light-colored and rose-colored, offering to every lip, either bestial or divine, the joy of her immortal breasts. Venus no longer lived in Greece; but women there had kept the splendor of her shape and the charm of her forwardness… Jesus! So much I could enjoy! A lightning split my soul.” Basically Raposo goes abroad to practice what we nowadays would call sex tourism. His sexual cravings not always bring him pleasure: at a hotel he tries to see a woman naked through the keyhole, only to get a beating from a man accompanying her. And sightseeing doesn’t interest him in the least. In Alexandria he meets Mary, a British girl who has a glove-shop and who secretly works as a part-time prostitute for rich tourists. While in Alexandria he does everything he can to spend every waking moment in her arms, to the point he even opts not to visit Cairo just so he won’t leave her. When his duties to move on to Jerusalem wrest him from her arms, she offers him her nightgown. “I give it to you, Teodorico! Take it, Teodorico! It’s still crumpled from our tenderness!... Take it with you to sleep with it next to you, as if you were with me… Wait, just a moment, my love! I want to add some words, a message!”

And Raposo goes on, with his new friend, Topsius, a German archeologist he met in Malta. Topsius is going to the Holy Land on research. After their return he’ll write a book Raposo mentions in the preface, called Strolling Through Jerusalem, which is also one of the reasons Raposo writes his memoirs, to sort out some errors he finds in his friend’s book. Topsius is a somewhat foolish intellectual, all ideal but totally aloof from what goes on around him. And prone for grand poetic statements. On their arrival to Egypt he declares: “Egypt! Egypt! I salute you, dark Egypt! And may your god Ptah, God of Letters, God of History, inspirer of works of Art and works of Truth, bring me good fortune!...” It can’t be a coincidence that after invoking the God of Truth so passionately, Raposo’s lies begin to fall apart: in chapter IV he discovers Mary does not love him but had affairs with many more men; and after his arrival in Lisbon Auntie gets wind of his non-pious activities and removes him from her will.

In Jerusalem he and Topsius rent caravans and go camping in the desert. There he finds a thorny tree and gets the inspiration to break one of its thickets and claim it as a holy relic, a genuine thicket from the tree used to create the Crown of Thorns. “But suddenly a harsh disquiet struck him… And what if a real transcendental virtue flowed in the fibers of that trunk? And what if Auntie began getting better from her liver, rejuvenating as soon as I installed one of its thorn-covered thickets in her prayer room, between candles and flowers? O wretched con! So I’d foolishly take Health’s miraculous agent to her, and turn her strong, indestructible, unburiable, with the fortune of G. Godinho in her avaricious hand! Me! I who would only start living – when she started dying!” So “Going round the Thorny Tree, I questioned it, gloomy and husky: ‘Come on, monster, speak! Are you one of those divine relics with supernatural powers? Or are you just a grotesque shrub with a Latin name in Linnaeus’ classifications?” Eventually he decides the tree has no powers and he bends a few thickets until they become the original Crown of Thorns. With his errand completed, next we should see him return to Lisbon and meet his comeuppance. But Eça interpolated these episodes with a long chapter that befuddled his coevals: thanks to unexplainable events, Raposo and Topsius, camping in the desert, get up at night, wander about and realize they’re in ancient Jerusalem, on the day Jesus Christ is to be crucified. What follows is a historical novella describing the events of the Passion.

It’s a remarkable chapter, a complete change in the novel’s farcical tone, full of lyrical descriptions and thought-provoking ideas and interpretations of Jesus Christ. Topsius, excited, takes Raposo to the house of learned Hebrews and starts discussing with them. They discuss Christ’s chastity, passing around the rumors of people seeing Christ sleeping around with women by the roads and behind wells. His wisdom is also brought into question. “What’s original and individual about all those ideas, man? Do you think the Rabbi took them from the abundance of his heart? Our doctrine is full of them!... Do you want to hear about Love, Charity, Equality? Read the book of Jesus, son of Sidrah… that was all preached by Hillel, that was all said by Schemaia! Equally fair things are found in pagan books, which, next to ours, are like mud next to the clean water of Siloam!... You, the Essenes, have better precepts!... The Rabbis of Babylonia, of Alexandria always taught laws pure with Justice and Equality! And so did your friend Iokanan, whom you call the Baptist, who so wretchedly ended up in a Machaerus jail…” Their hosts also want to see Christ dead because he doesn’t preach rebellion against Rome. “When there’s a Roman praetor in Jerusalem, when Roman lances watch the doors of our God, what’s the use of this visionary talking about heavenly bread and the wine of truth? The only useful truth is that there shouldn’t be Romans in Jerusalem!...” A curious inversion of the myth of Jesus is when a poor merchant complains about his fanaticism; one of the merchants Jesus expelled from the Temple, this man accuses him of having condemned him to poverty: “So a few days ago that Rabbi from Galilee shows up at the Temple, full of angry words, rises his staff and throws it at us, shouting that that was the ‘house of his father, and that we polluted it!...’ And he dispersed all my jewels, which I never saw again, which were my livelihood! Against the ground he smashed vases of oil belonging to Eboim, Joppe, who was too dumbstruck to scream. The temple guards appeared. So did Menahem; indignant he even said to the Rabbi: ‘You’re quite harsh on the poor. What authority do you have?’ And the Rabbi said “from his father,” and lecture us on the Temple’s severe law. Menahem lowered his head… and we had to flee, booed by the rich merchants, who wrapped in their Babylonian rugs and with their spot handsomely paid for, clapped at the Rabbi… Ah! Against them the Rabbi could say nothing: they were rich, they had paid!... And now here I am! My daughter, a widow and ill, can’t work, wrapped up in rags in a corner: and my daughter’s children, are small and hungry, they look at me, see me so sad don’t even weep. And what did I do? I’ve always been humble, I respect the Sabbath, I go to Naim’s synagogue, and I gathered whatever crumbs were left on my plate to give to those who don’t even have crumbs on this earth… What harm did I do by selling? In what did I offend the Lord? Before unrolling the rug I always kissed the Temple’s stones: each stone was purified by holy water… In truth Jehovah is great and he knows… But I was expelled by the Rabbi only because I was poor!” Eça was always anticlerical but he never stopped admiring Jesus’ teachings of love and justice. This is the only book I know where he directs an attack at him; but The Relic is a farce, everything, from people to values to doctrine, is treated in a grotesque manner.

Eça’s deviations from the Bible continue after Jesus’ death. The author postulates the theory that Jesus did die, but his followers hid his body in order to pretend a miracle occurred. “After tomorrow, when the Sabbath ends, the women of Galilee will return to the sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea where they left Jesus buried… And they’ll find it open, they’ll find it empty!... ‘He disappeared, he’s not here!...’ Then Mary Magdalene, a believer and in love, will shout throughout Jerusalem, ‘He resurrected, he resurrected!’ And so the love of a woman changes the face of the world, and gives mankind one more religion!”

After this experience Raposo returns home and all his delusions and lies begin to crumble: first in Alexandria he discovers Mary is a prostitute; and then in Lisbon instead of the Crown of Thorns wrapped in paper, Auntie finds Mary’s nightgown. I won’t mention Raposo’s short-lived business of selling holy relics to credulous middle-class Lisboners, although that’s one of the novel’s most hilarious episodes. As is the dream Raposo has in Jerusalem where the Devil (always a sympathetic figure in Eça’s fiction) pays him a visit to complain about his uselessness in the modern world. Eça’s dreams are always pearls; his fiction is filled with them. The novel ends with the older Raposo reflecting about honesty and what made him fail: although we witness his rebirth as decent, upstanding family man, Raposo himself casts some doubts about the value of honesty, and we find in his final words a gentle sadness for having lost Auntie’s fortune. In fact, in his view his mistake was not trying to fool Auntie; his mistake was not being bold enough in his lies. The Raposo who narrates may be a man reconciled with honesty, but now he’s also wise enough to realize truth and honesty are relative values subordinated to man’s necessity to believe in delusions. But more about this after tomorrow. 

Note: the translations are mine, and not to be confused with Margaret Jull Costa's better ones.


  1. How terrific to have this resource - your month of Eça posts. I finished The Relic last week and am still smiling. In some ways it seems almost a trifle, an amusement, a kind of moral fable with a plot twist at the end that would amuse a child. But step back a bit, and what a bold conception! Since Eça had made a trip to Palestine, he might easily have just written up a travelogue, and indeed long passages of the novel sound like travel writing. But then he takes the travelogue and makes out of it a novel both humorous and pointed, a mockery of religious fanaticism and clericalism, and inserts this amazing historical recreation of the Passion in the middle, what strikes me as a way of toying with Flaubert's Salammbo. Then to top it off he suggests the great subterfuge of the faking of the miracle of the rock (which 100 years later would be the centerpiece of Tom Robbin's comic novel, Another Roadside Attraction). Just tremendous. Now on to your next post about The Relic.

    1. The Relic is my favourite Eça, one of his rare promenades out of the Naturalist novel. I wish he had tried fantasy more often, given his wild imagination, but he always restrained it. What that produced was a series of realistic novels full of delightfully odd characters and situations.