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.