Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: La saga/fuga de J.B.

“One day I wrote that the place to the right of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of the Quixote, vacant for many centuries, had been occupied by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, author of La saga/fuga de J.B. I say it again now, I’ll have to repeat it tomorrow, knowing that many and many years will have to pass before a book like this is written again.” So gushed José Saramago in the preface to the French edition. His admiration for this Spanish novelist from Galicia dots his diaries Cadernos de Lanzarote, where I discovered a fabulist as important in his country as he is unknown in rest of the world.

In Portugal, where he’s been amply translated, he was only discovered in the late ‘80s, and it’s neigh impossible to find bookstores stocking his books nowadays. His most famous novel is La saga/fuga de J.B., but it wasn’t even the first to be translated; being the first part of a loose trilogy, it wasn’t even the first volume to be translated. And marketing being the delicate science it is, the first Portuguese edition in 1992 sweetened the deal by using Saramago’s preface to the French since he was Portugal’s bestselling author at the time.

Unwilling to be deterred by denuded bookstores, I bought the book in Spanish. I never studied Spanish in my life and this was the second time I was going to attempt reading a book in Spanish; years before there had been a failed go at Gabriel García Márquez’ Memories of my Melancholy Whores: sometime later when I read it in Portuguese I realized that the problem hadn’t been the Spanish, Memories of my Melancholy Whores is a dull, meretricious novel that does a serious disservice to Gabo’s greatness.

Now, contrary to popular belief, Portuguese and Spanish aren’t that similar; many words are indeed spelled the same way, and many others share only negligible orthographic differences which context bridges; but there are also many false friends. I chose to boot an 800-page novel. Surprisingly, with patience, dictionaries and online resources, I succeeded in understanding most of the novel. In any event, the effort was well worth it.

Written in 1972, La saga/fuga de J.B defies definitions, synopses, encapsulation. It’s long, erudite, meandering, simultaneously plotless and overplotted, and meticulously bizarre. Even the censor who reviewed it thought that it was a confusing: “Of all the gibberish this reader has read in this world, this is the worst. Totally impossible to understand, the action takes place in an imaginary village, Castroforte del Baralla, where there are lampreys, a holy body that appeared from the water, and a series of madmen who speak lots of nonsense. From time to time something sexual, almost always as nonsensical as the rest, and some swearing in line with the current literary tendency.” Remember that by this time Spanish censors had read most of the Latin American Boom production: Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Fuentes, Donoso, Cabrera Infante, Lezama Lima, Carpentier, Angel Asturias. Nevertheless, La saga/fuga de J.B still elicited so much exasperation: that’s a kind of high praise. The censor concluded: “This book deserves neither condemnation nor approval. Condemnation would find no justification, and approval would be too great an honor for so much stupidity and insensitivity. It is proposed applying ADMINISTRATIVE SILENCE.”

In fairness to the censor, who approved it, his description of the novel is dead on. It starts in media res highlighting events that don’t catch up with the main storyline until the third part of the novel. The reader is immediately plunged into the stealing of a famous holy relic in Castroforte del Baralla, a Galician village. In the second chapter, written as a ballad, it is sung the legend of how the Holy Body of a female saint was rescued from dangerous waters by a sailor called Barallobre, whose descendants would later help shape the history of Castroforte, “the city that dreams itself.” The relic’s recovery is of the utmost importance to the villagers not only because it sustains religious tourism, an important source of revenue, but because without the relic the man-eating lampreys, which live in the village’s rivers and provide another part of the local economy, go away.

José Bastida, the protagonist, is its official historian and the reader’s guide to Castroforte’s historical and supernatural mysteries. José Bastida, an outsider, is an ordinary, weak, unassuming man. “This boy is so ugly he can only be a priest,” his mother said of him. And he failed at that too because the bishop refused to ordain someone so ugly. After a stint in jail because of political activism, this self-styled radical finds a teaching job in Castroforte.

Unloved but eager for affection, watched by the police, despised by the locals, he lives in a pension room where he starves almost to death because of his meagre salary. His only friend is Julia, the pensioner’s daughter, whom he loves. He’s also a poet, although he writes in a personal language he invented in prison. When we first meet him he’s living with four other individuals with the initials J.B., “sustained characters” he calls them, figments of his imagination who radiate the characteristics he admires; they are: Mr. Bastid (Englishman, confidence), M. Bastide (Frenchman, good looks), José Bastideira (Portuguese, romantic), and Joseph Petrovich Bastidoff (Russian, anarchist, man of action). “If I were as elegant as Mr. Bastid, or as refined and romantically attractive as Bastideira; as good looking as M. Bastide or as imposing as Bastidoff, it’s almost certain I’d have conquered her,” J. B. sighs. Later I came to learn that GTB, as he was affectionately called, was a big fan of Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms. Later I also learned that alliterative names - Palmeirim, Primaleón, Platirwere a common trope in chivalry romances, which GTB was a fan of. As an aside, Saramago’s Balthasar and Blimunda, the English title is a dead giveaway, also plays with this ancient trope by focusing on a trio of characters called Balthasar, Blimunda and Bartolomeu.

Julia’s father, known only as the Spiritist, he attends séances and has a Hitler obsession. Believing that Bastida is a medium, he cajoles him into accompanying him to séances because Bastida hopes being deferential to him will grant him special treatment, except the Spiritist firmly believes his medium skills flourish the longer he starves.

Bastida, treated like a freak, nevertheless gets embroiled in the secret activities of some locals. Spending countless hours in the village’s archives reading old newspapers he discovers the history of the Round Table, a secret society that in the past worked to protect Castroforte from its enemies, particularly the rival village Villasanta de la Estrella. Bastida, showing a contagious enthusiasm for Castroforte’s history, becomes the catalyst that sets in motion the restoration of the modern Round Table. As its new configuration takes shape he learns of an ancient conspiracy to erase Castroforte from existence. Castroforte, it turns out, doesn’t exist on maps; buses don’t officially go there. Schoolchildren don’t learn about it. Furthermore, the citizens don’t trust public functionaries, whom they call “Goths”, because they see them as invaders suppressing the village’s ancient autonomy. This mistrust of civil servants causes no end of anguish to the Spiritist: “To the Spiritist, convinced that the Führer hadn’t died and that he was hiding in Spain, he was worried to the point of obsession that he’d show up one day through the door of his inn and take a room in it with a false name. ‘For, in that case, how am I going to denounce him to the police, if the police is completely in on it?’”

Bastida’s investigation unearth many fascinating particularities: for instance, Castroforte has thirteen Zodiac signs instead of twelve, and they’ve been updated for the scientific age. He also discovers that the village levitates when the locals are worried about the same thing at the same time. There’s also a female branch of the Rosicrucians. And a prophecy also states that a J.B. always appears to save the village in times of need. This coincidence, or Jungian synchronicity, sets the Round Table’s sights on him.

In keeping with GTB’s love for chivalric romance references, the Round Table’ members are named after King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, et cetera. In modern times, however, everyone gives Parsifal a pass. “I don’t think any of us would dare to take his name, because he was chaste,” Bastida says. A Mr. Pink dilemma years before Reservoir Dogs.

“The history of the Round Table, at least as far as I can see it, is a political history and a pornographic history,” Bastida says. The censor was right: this is a sexy, dirty, bawdy novel. One of the members of the old Round Table describes the purpose of the group like this: “Our first obligation, after rescuing the old city from ignorant hands, and aiding the local girls – don Torcuato declared, in private – consists no more no less than liberating our fellow citizens from their ancestral erotic habits. What can one expect from a people that doesn’t know another posture but the normal one, and besides in the dark and with pajamas on?”

Don Torcuato, a 19th-century amateur scientist and man of progress straight out of Comtian positivism, wants to modernize Castroforte and defeat the forces of ignorance and superstition. Putting art at the service of progress, he concocts a didactic poem about the valuable lampreys. However, Barrantes, the group’s poet, disagrees on the form and produces an alternative poem “without didacticism and almost no lampreys:” “His soul is being corrupted by the nefarious doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, which, as very French as it may be, is a reactionary doctrine. Art, either it serves human progress, or it’s useless. Why waste time inventing sufferings of love in verse, if his loves only matter to him? Apart from the fact, my friend, that one of the worst evils you can inflict on future generations is keeping them under the belief that love is an almost divine thing. It’s necessary to desacralize love, and we have to imbue the young with the idea that what we have so far called Love, with a capital L, is nothing but the coerced, when not blocked, display of sexuality, a natural activity which we men have made an effort to mystify through the process of making it difficult or impossible. If you, instead of abstaining from all contact with females in the name of an imaginary fidelity to a woman that doesn’t exist, participated in the methodical, I’d almost say scientific, orgies that we, on fixed dates and with gymnastic synchronicity, offer ourselves to, you’d understand that what you call Love is no other thing but the result of cerebral perturbations caused by the accumulation of semen in Graaf’s vesicles, which, once empty, stop sending poisons into the brain until they’re full again.” (This is almost a metacommentary since in 1972 Spanish writers and critics were divided in two camps, one that valued politically-engaged social realism to the exclusion of the imagination, and another that gave precedence to form and fantastic plotting in detriment of social criticism. GTB was on the fabulist camp.)

But when the members of the Round Table aren’t having amorous adventures and misadventures, they’re fighting to preserve the spirit of the village, which isn’t shown on the maps and has been suppressed by the state. Castroforte’s existence has been erased from national consciousness. The Round Table, which was founded in 1865, possibly invented many of the legends and histories of the city, which is always under constant attack from thinkers and historians who want to disprove its historical existence. Although its byzantine history allegedly dates back to the Romans, maybe the historical record is a forgery concocted by the Round Table to compensate for the conspiracy against it, adding to it more history than it actually does.

The novel becomes comically complicated when Bastida narrates many historical episodes about Castroforte which may in fact be counterfeit. The reader never leaves its long first act; it’s all about the set-up: when he thinks Bastida has finally revealed everything there is to know about Castroforte and the second act may finally begin, someone exposes his revelations as lies. As such, the paranoid clouds are never dispelled, the novel deliberately sort of fizzles out, ending on a unsatisfying note as if mocking the excess of expectations raised by the convoluted plotting. Existing in the ebb and flow of solidified myth and its demystification, agitated into movement by the tension between building and demolishing the substance of Castroforte, the novel itself becomes a metaphor for our relationship with storytelling, craving to believe in the reality of something we know to be unreal.

There are also many quirky incidents that make this novel worth reading. Bastida’s alter egos reject the idea that they’re fictional: “The idea of madness is incompatible with the solidity of my personality,” argues Mr. Bastid. There’s Bastida using his made-up dialogue to defend Julia in court. There’s the modern King Arthur’s scientific vision of a universe without women, where reproduction is strictly done in laboratories. This version, however, isn’t as outré as his predecessor, Don Torcuato, whose original theory of how men evolved from monocular to binocular vision segues into a dialogue between cavemen, one a painter, the other a thinker. “Everyone despises high Palaeolithic realism. They say it’s an outdated art,” the caveman painter complains. And there’s time travelling, José Bastida meets the previous JBs.

On a purely inventive level, La saga/fuga de J.B. is a marvel, a mandala, a masterpiece. Just its many narrative disruptions and subversions make it one of the most original novels of the 20th century. On page 225, Bastida advises the reader, if he doesn’t wish to read Don Torcuato’s treatise about binocular vision evolution, to skip 15 pages and continue from 240. But then he’ll miss cavemen musings about high Palaeolithic realistic art. This narratorial advice is not nearly as weird as when Jacinto Barallobre murders his sister and Bastida revises and edits the text to change its outcome.

The narrative is loose, slow, lacks focus deliberately, and Torrente Ballester doesn’t use indented paragraphs if he can help it, preferring to break his chunky paragraphs with diagrams, tables, and poems; but like in the large, loose, baggy Moby Dick we’re in the hands of an excellent narrator so the narrative moves like fire across a prairie.

Knowing that Saramago was a big admirer of Torrente Ballester and this novel, I can’t help noticing the similarities between La saga/fuga de J.B. and some ideas sprinkled throughout Saramago’s oeuvre, like the Passarola from Baltasar and Blimunda and the strange starlings from The Stone Raft. However, La saga/fuga de J.B. belongs rather to the Rabelaisian tradition and its closer kin are other long, bawdy novels from the ‘60s and ‘70s like The Tin Drum, The Sot-Weed Factor, Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Terra Nostra. Its scope is comparable to Terra Nostra, with which it shares the concept of cyclical time and the central idea that it takes many lives to make a person, an idea illustrated when all the JBs coalesce into a single individual.

Although the overarching plot about the legendary J. B. who’ll save Castroforte consumes most of the novel, its value lies also on many great individual episodes which are not subordinated to the main architecture but seem to exist solely for the pleasure of distilling weirdness. Here’s a scene wherein the members of the Round Table discuss the oblivion the poet Barrantes has been relegated to in textbooks:

“What could one say about him? Many things actually: that his Viaje subterráneo is similar to Une saison en enfer, of which it is contemporary; that his poem “Uno, dos, tres…” uses the metric and spirit of his Odas particulares coincide with the metric and spirit of the Six grandes odes; that he used the alexandrine like Rubén Darío; that his concept of love coincides with Machado’s: his social and political poems say things similar to what Celaya and Otero did; that in his Canciones al bosque muerto he prefigures La entrada a la Madera. Do you want more? An able critic, with all this, would make of him, not just a great poet, but a great precursor, and this would assure his glory. You know full well that poets nowadays aren’t read, but studied. What did he take and from where? What did he bequeath and to whom? What’s his place in the golden chain of poetry? Was he ahead of his time, was he in harmony with it, was he behind it? And let’s not mention those who ask, before the work of a poet, if it contributed or not to the revolution.”

This discussion about Cain and Abel taking a turn into semiotics is also high on my list of the novel’s funniest moments:

“Do you know where your sister is?” And Jacinto: “Am I my sister’s keeper?” Don Acisclo jumped, startled. “Did you kill her?” “But, man of God, you’re crazy! Why would I have killed her?” “You answered me like Cain to the Lord!” “But, unfortunately, neither are you the Lord nor am I Cain!” “Nevertheless, that’s what that reply always means!...” Barallobre interrupted him with a flowery gesture. “Don’t go on, I beg you. The meaning of a phrase doesn’t depend on the sum of the meanings of its words, but on endless coincidental circumstances whose enumeration is not the most opportune moment.” Don Acisclo, rather upset, jumped backwards: “What? You dare to relativize a text from the Bible?” “May God spare me from doing it in front of you! My defeat would be certain. Nevertheless, since you’ve mentioned it, that text can serve very well as a starting point, since it’s been in your mind and in mine, and, without wanting to, both of us used it as a reference, or as the linguists say, a model. Let’s consider the situation: Cain has just killed his brother Abel, and the Lord asks for him. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ replies the fratricide. But is that, exactly, what he means? Let’s examine it carefully and free of prejudices. The Lord is omniscient, and Cain knows it. The Lord, however, asks. With such a reply, Cain intends to tell the Lord, more or less: ‘You know fully well I’ve killed him, because I couldn’t stand him, because he was too perfect, because he was your favorite, because the wind didn’t darken the smoke column of his sacrifices, because his wife gave birth to children peacefully, and mine died, because his livestock multiplied and mine were destroyed by hunger and thirst…’ You understand me: no one, not even Cain, dares to tell the Lord things like this in his face: so he replies with an absurd question. Now, you come and ask me a question similar to the one God asked Cain, and I answer with the same words. There’s an initial difference: the Lord knew where Abel was and you don’t know where my sister is. The Lord’s question was tricky, and yours naïve. My answer, then, enters a system of distinct meanings, and, for my part, lends it some inconsistency (the sentence results from an involuntary association) and a bit of irony (the sentence is disproportionate to the occasion). However you receive it, not in its literal sense, not even in its real sense, but as a reference to the model, and you reason this more or less:

If Jacinto Barallobre replies to me with the same words Cain used, that means he did the same,

from which arises your second question. Well now: if Cain hadn’t interpreted with rectitude the reach of the Lord’s question, that is, if it were hypothetically possible for the Lord to ignore the murder, doesn’t it seem more logical to have answered: ‘What do I know? He’s around. I haven’t seen him for two or three days.” Or shrug his shoulders. Since I didn’t kill my sister I can use with complete innocence the same words Cain did, even without suspecting, of course, that you’d mix, as you did, the semantic and linguistic levels, which one must never do, under the risk of mixing things up and incurring in the pathetic confusion you’ve incurred in.”

In its rhythm of impasse it reminds one of Franz Kafka’s The Castle. There are revelations and counter-revelations, and counter-counter-revelations. This sense of impasse is intensified by a disorderly chronology, by incidents in the present being left in suspension while something in the past is better explain or reexplained, and then jumping forward in time. Frustration is weaved into the novel’s fabric. So besides a metaphor for reading it also looks like a metaphor for make-believe: GTB invents a village in painstaking detail, a thoroughly-realized fictional place with its own history, geography, customs; and then the demiurge unravels his creation.

Keeping close to pre-realist fiction and myths, GTB gives Castroforte a cyclical time. Castroforte is in fact the nodal point of a pattern repeating itself with subtle permutations. “In La saga/fuga de J.B., everything, in the literal sense of the word, is connected to everything, exactly as if it were a living body, a biological system, the skeleton connected to the blood vessels, the brain to the spine, the digestive chemistry to the chemistry of assimilation, the heart to the lungs, act to thought,” wrote Saramago. There is always a poet in the Round Table (Bastida is the new one), a J.B. always dies in the Ides of March, the King Arthur is always a scientist. One such pattern is the duels that Castroforte has with the Goths, the outsiders. There’s the legendary duel between lampreys and the foreign starlings who mysteriously appear out of nowhere, culminating in an unprecedented aero-naval battle. There’s a duel of parrots. There’s a Rabelaisian duel between the Castrofortinos and the Goths to see how many words for penis and vagina they discover. For the Castrofortinos it’s a matter of honor that they have more words for vagina. This is a very strange, hilarious novel.

I’m not sure if Saramago was right in saying that Torrente Ballester sits to the right of Cervantes, but La saga/fuga de J.B. is unlike any other novel I’ve ever read, a torrent of comedy, imagination, heart and subtlety organized into a tightly-planned structure.

Updated in September, 2021.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Eça de Queiroz

Sometimes language can act as a barrier to recognition, especially in the case of literature on the fringes of the English-reading world. If Eça de Queiroz hadn’t written his novels in Portuguese, readers and critics would utter his name in the same tone of reverence reserved for the likes of Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The comparison seems bold, I know, but Eça – as he’s called – is the greatest 19th century Portuguese writer. A great realist with a satirist's heart, he portrayed his time perfectly while capturing the soul of the Portuguese people.

I wish I could drink from the mythical Lethe to forget the hours I spent reading his finely-constructed sentences, just to have the pleasure of relishing them again for the first time. Thinking about them is almost as good. Even without Lethe, my memory is a bit hazy since I read him years ago, so this short introduction doesn’t presume to be deep and scholarly; I merely hope to stimulate the reader’s curiosity.

Eça de Queiroz wrote mostly between 1870 and 1900, the year he passed away. Although most of his work was published in his lifetime, death didn’t stop him. Posthumous books – mostly non-fiction, essays, articles (called crónicas), letters and travelogues, but also fiction – kept appearing well into the 1920s, and as recently as 1980 a new novel was discovered and published.

Eça was born in 1845, son of a magistrate. His grandfather had served th royal family exiled in Brazil. Eça's father had an uneventful career, except for the time he helped Camilo Castelo Branco stay out of prison. Camilo is Portugal's other great 19th-century novelist and before Eça its most popular. In 2010, the Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz made a very entertaining and visually-dazzling adaptation of Camilo's Mysteries of Lisbon.
In the 1860s Eça studied Law at the University of Coimbra, where his father had studied before him. It’s the oldest university in Portugal and its the most prestigious. Eça was supposed to have followed his father's footsteps, but he was an awful laywer and I believe he lost every case in his short-lived career. But he was more interested in literature. Coimbra was then at the center of new ideas coming from France, especially revolutionary ideas. Eça befriended the Antero de Quental, the leader of a movement to reform literature and politics. Portugal was at the time a constitutional monarchy, but people like Antero believed the system was rigged in order to allow the same two parties to stay in power in rotation but indefinitely, protecting their personal interests while the country declined. Antero was flirting with socialism and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anarchis. Politically, Eça wasn't much of anything besides an all-round mocker, but for a while he went along with Antero.
The new generation of writers and thinkers made its raucous debut in 1871 during a series of public conferences. Antero spoke gloomily about Portugal's spiritual, moral, economic, political, imperial decadence since the 17th century. Eça introduced literary Realism in a talk that touched on Flaubert, Zola and Hippolyte Taine’s literary theories predicated on the triad environment, race and historical moment. Eça harshly attacked novelists before his time, branding them all as idealistic romantics. What suited Portugal's needs was Realism, a method that showed reality as it was, without flourishes, so that its ills could be identified and treated. Infatuated with revolutionary ideals, Eça actually interpreted Madame Bovary as a political novel!

Unfortunately the conferences took place in the same week as the Paris Commun, and the government feared its influence would spread into Portugal unless the conferences be shut down. This actually was to the speakers' benefit since the Government fell immediately because of the publical scandal, no one was arrested, and they all became famous.
Since finishing his studies in 1866, Eça had been working as a journalist. In 1969 he received an assignment to cover the opening of the Suez Canal. His dispatches from Egypt were later published in book form in 1926; this trip also provided him with material to write one of his best novels, The Relic. Upon his return to Portugal, he collaborated with his friend Ramalho Ortigão on a satirical newspaper called As Farpas, (The Splinters). They also co-wrote The Mystery of the Sintra Road, an "execrable novel," according to the 1884 edition preface. It's a detective novel, the first in Portuguese literature. The years was 1870. They wrote it anonymously and published it in newspapers, convincing the public that they were reporting a true crime. It's not exacrable at all, although Eça would do much better.

The bulk of his work was written during his diplomatic career. In 1873 he was assigned to the consulate in Havana. Portugal had a consulate in Havana because many workers from Macau, a Portuguese colony, went to Cuba to work in plantations. These workers were often subjected to a near-slavery system, an arrangement Eça sought to resolve.

The Crime of Father Amaro, his first novel, was published while working as a consul in Havana.
Between 1874 and 1888 he was assigned to several consulates in England. Finally he got the consulate he craved the most, Paris, and resided in the French capital until his death in 1900. Since the diplomatic career paid badly and he couldn't make a living off books, he continued to write for newspapers. Most of his articles were written for the Brazilian press after he became a sensation there thanks to Cousin Bazilio (1878). His still highly readable articles focus mostly on the European politics, economy and arts of his time. He was especially critical of Europe's imperial designs. After his death the articles were collected in volumes like Letters from England and Ecos de Paris.

Letters from England, available in English, contains fascinating observations from the political to the mundane. Eça was curious about a wide range of subjects. Sometimes he made prophecies: he predicted the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and the expansion of Jihadists in the Middle East; he foretold England would be caught in an unwinnable war with Afghanistan; and he even guessed travel guides would outsell literature (and they’re everywhere nowadays, staring at you with their colorful, tropical-exotic covers). In other articles, Eça discussed the Irish famine, compared Christmas traditions between Portugal and England, extolled English children’s literature, lamenting that it wasn't more popular a genre in Portugal, and also commented the Harcourt interpolation, a 1882 scandal caused by The Times inadvertently printing a political speech with the word "fuck" in it. Although no one probably remembers it anymore, it must have caused a huge commotion back then, since Eça devoted an entire article to it.

But as interesting as his journalism was, it’s his literature he’s chiefly remembered for. In 1874 he published his first novel, The Crime of Father Amaro. The novel follows the arrival of a young and handsome priest to Leiria, a small providence town, where he quickly conquers the attention and devotion of a group of pious ladies who slavishly dote on him. However his attention is focused on a young woman, Amélia, daughter of the innkeeper where he takes lodgings. With the complicity of an older priest, who’s having his own affair with the mother, he seduces Amélia and destroys the reputation of her pretender. Things escalate and when Amélia becomes pregnant, Amaro, who has greater ambitions than spending the rest of his life in a countryside cul-de-sac, gives the baby to adoption although it's implied he plans its death. After ending the relationship with Amélia without harming his immaculate image he continues his path to power and influence. This novel was revised in 1876 and again in 1880, each time Eça stripping away the idealism and romantic sentimentality of the first version (a “sketch,” he called it) in order to depict Amaro as a cold, manipulative upstart without scruples or remors. 

Written between 1877 and 1878, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers was only published in 1980. A preliminary sketch of his masterpiece The Maias, it concerns a young man who falls in love with an older foreign woman. Although a bit redundant, it’s still very well written and displays a strong satirical voice and a mind attuned to the grotesque. It also contains one of Eça's best characters, a painter with quasi-religious ideas about art, nostalgic for the bygone era of aristocratic patrons and enemy of vulgar commercialization.

Cousin Bazilio, from 1878, explores the incestuous relationship between Luiza, a married housewife, and her cad of a cousin, Bazilio, who returns from abroad to settle some businesses. In want of a lover, he starts an affair with her just to while away the time. Eça probably used Madame Bovary as a template, especially in the almost sadistic way the book dismantles romantic clichés. However, Luiza is no Emma Bovary. The novel belongs to Bazilio, one of the most revolting and unscrupulous bastards from literature, and Juliana, a maid who blackmails Luiza with a letter revealing her affair. Long after Bazilio is out of her life, Luiza continues to suffer the consequences when Juliana, with chilling class prejudice, rebels against her and turns mistress into slave.

Eça abandoned realism for his next work, a novella admired by, among others, Jorge Luis Borges, who included it in his collection "Library of Babel". The Mandarin is a fantastic tale about Teodoro, a clerk visited by the Devil; he gives him a small bell, promising him that if he rings it he’ll inherit the fortune of a Mandarin who dies at its ringing. Tempted by dreams of fortune and luxury, imagining himself living an opulent life, he obviously rings the bell. Immediately he becomes the the dead mandarin's heir. Unfortunately he can’t enjoy the fortune because the dead man’s spirit haunts him: it doesn’t do him harm; it just stands in front of him, staring at him. Always. Teodoro travels to China in search of the dead man to give him a proper burial. Things don't pan out as he hopes. This was in 1880.
Around 1879 he was working on another novella, The Count of Abranhos, a mock-encomium of a mediocre social climber who becomes a minister. It wasn't published until after his death.

In 1887, The Relic came out. Teodorico is a poor dilettante who must convince his pious but rich aunt to bequeath all her fortune to him. But his lack of religious convictions and his bohemian lifestyle set the odds against him. In order to ingratiate himself with her, he makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, promising to bring back a holy relic for her. In the journey he finds love (with a hooker) and starts a lucrative business importing relics en masse to sell to the deeply religious bourgeois class in Lisbon. Eça’s humor corrodes everything: class, religion, love, politics; it’s his funniest novel. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno admired it. In fact this was Eça's most internationally popular novel for a long time in number of translations. Miguel Angel Asturias and Alejo Carpentier were two other fans of it.

José Saramago called The Maias the greatest Portuguese novel ever written, and he may be right; it is considered Eça’s masterpiece and it came out in 1888. It’s a long book, a vista of Portuguese middle class society, with hundreds of characters from several walks of life. At its core, the plot follows one Carlos da Maia and his love affair with a mysterious foreign woman surrounded by rumors. At another level, it chronicles the decadence of a family across three generations, each one symbolizing a different aesthetic school: Stoicism, Romanticism, and finally Decadentism embodied by Carlos da Maia, a bohemian ne’er-do-well, a well-intentioned but ineffectual young man whose plans to chage society never amount to anything.
This was his last great novel published in life. The Illustrious House of Ramires came out in the same year of his death. It may be his most impenetrable novel for readers unfamiliar with Portuguese history; it weaves history, nationalism, politics and writing as careerism: Gonçalo Ramires, the last descendant of one of the oldest families in Portugal, older than the nation itself, starts writing a novel about one of his ancestors, a 13th century knight and faithful servant of King Afonso II. Gonçalo, an ambitious social climber who dreams of securing political power, believes that the publication of a historical novel with a nationalistic tone will boost his name in society and ingratiate him with the right politicos. Eça wrote it at a time when Portugal’s unstable monarchy was under threat from what became known as "the British Ultimatum." In 1890 the Portuguese government received orders from England to pull out its troops from its own African colonies, namely the territories between Angola and Mozambique, to make way for the creation of a British-owned railway connecting Cairo to the Cape. All Hell broke loose, at the scale of a politically powerless country of course. There were rabble-rousers actually encouraging people to start a war with England. There were people who immolated themselves in protest. There was a subscritption to buy a boat to attack England. The Republic Party, a small but noisy party, used this incident to intensify its attacks on a monarchy it blamed for this international humiliation. The Illustrious House of Ramires is a bit ambiguous because it's not clear whether Eça sympathises with the nationalists or not. Some have tried to see it as the beginning of his reconcilition with a country he roasted for many years, but it's not that simple really. He mocks politics a lot, but his conclusion also seems to be that Portugal's only hope of rebirth lies in exploring the colonies. Twenty years before, in The Farpas he was cheerfully recommending that they be sold since they were useless. In my view, it's not Eça’s best novel. Maybe it’s just my temperament, but I prefer Eça when he’s bleak and pessimistic.

In 1901 The City and the Mountains came out. I think it's also not amongst his best, but it may be the one that speaks more to modern readers. A man living in Paris, the center of civilization, returns to his quiet estate in the countryside. Obsessed with gadgets, inventions, he suffers from hyper-civilization and experiences some of the emptiness we nowdays feel awash as we are in technology. At times it reads like a simplistic demonization of modernity and a panegyric to bucolism, but Eça's usual humor and ability to look at things from unusual perspectives save it from being a pamphlet.
Then in 1925, three new works surfaced: To the Capital, a novel about a mediocre writer who moves from the countryside to Lisbon thinking he’ll become important - until his bohemian lifestyle and obvious lack of talent open his eyes to reality; Alves & C., a novella about a man who arrives home early one day and finds his wife in the arms of his business partner, leading to one of literature's most hilarious and clumsy attempts at setting a duel of honor; and The Count of Abranhos, a searing indictment of Portuguese politics written in the form of a panegyric, following the schemes of a nobody in order to become a minister. This was Eça's darkest (but always funny) vision of politics, showing it as a network of connections and factions the neophyte must learn to knot himself into in order to achieve his goal. For me, it's a pretty accurate way of how politics work in Portugal to this day, and it beats reading a shelf of treatises.

And that’s it for his major works. All in all, he’s well served by English translations. So there’s no reason not to read him.
Revised in January 2022.