Sunday, August 21, 2005

BOOK: Eça de Queiroz, "The Relic"

Eça de Queiroz: The Relic. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Sawtry: Dedalus, 1994, 2003. 0946626944. viii + 281 pp.

I am somewhat of a Lusophile, if that's the right term for a person enthusiastic about things Portuguese. It started a few years ago, when my mother went to Portugal for a week to attend a conference, and brought me an Amália Rodrigues CD as a gift, and I found that I enjoy fado music very much. Not long afterwards I stumbled across the Penguin Classics edition of Eça's The Maias in a bookstore. The cover seemed appealing; the blurbs on the back of the book looked encouraging: a grand 19th-century classic of a novel; and the fact that the author was Portuguese was just an extra plus; so I bought it without hesitation, and it was the best read I had had in a long time. Naturally I wanted to read more from the same author, and was happy to find out that quite a few of Eça's works are available in English translations. Since then I've read his The Crime of Father Amaro, Cousin Bazilio and now The Relic. All these four books were really fine realistic novels in the best 19th-century tradition; great to read, with many humorous passages, a touch of scandal every now and then, and above all with a lot of sharp satire and criticism of the backwardness and hypocrisy that pervaded Portuguese society in which Eça lived. I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of Eça's works, as many as I can find in English translation.

<spoiler warning> This book was great fun to read. The central character of the novel is Teodorico Raposo, a young man with a rich but extremely pious and conservative aunt. In the hopes of inheriting her money, Teodorico has to pretend to be just as religious as she, and has to prevent her from finding out about his fondness for drinking and for love affairs. The aunt sends him to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and tells him to bring her some relic from the Holy Land. A curious chapter follows at this point in the book, fantastic rather than realistic, as Teodorico finds himself in 1st-century Jerusalem for a few days, exactly at the time of Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution. Anyway, back in the modern time, Teodorico prepares a nice relic and returns home; when the box with the relic is open in front of his aunt, it turns out to contain (either because of some mistake or as God's punishment for Teodorico's hypocrisy) not the relic but the night-dress of a woman with whom he had an affair during his travels. The aunt kicks him out of the house and Teodorico eventually renounces hypocrisy in favour of complete honesty, and in fact ends up living a good and pleasant enough life, but surprisingly concludes that things could have turned out even better if he had stuck to hypocrisy, if only he had had the presence of mind to come up with the right lie at the critical moment when the box was open and found not to contain the relic. </spoiler warning>

During his pilgrimage, Teodorico is accompanied by a German professor named Topsius, who has all the pedantry (pp. 122–3, 206–7) and pomposity (p. 73) you would expect from a 19th-century German professor. The author greatly enjoys poking fun at this stereotype; thus we head that Topsius wrote a seven-volume work on An Annotated Walk Around Jerusalem (p. 9; see also p. 72); Teodorico sings a fado and Topsius immediately asks if the lyrics are by Camões (whereas they are in fact by some obscure singer from some cafe, whose name Topsius duly writes down, p. 80); Topsius' stinginess (Teodorico gave alms to an old man, and “Topsius added a copper coin which, in Judaea, is worth a single grain of corn”, p. 175). A nice quote from Topsius: “Only the futile marvel at stones!” (P. 180.)

The aunt is obsessed with the concern that somebody who lives in her house (Teodorico or the maidservants) might be having an affair, and is grotesquely examining everybody's rooms, underwear, etc. all the time (pp. 38, 244).

Teodorico's travels in the Near East (in Egypt and Palestine), particularly the part where he finds himself in the 1st century AD, give the author many opportunities to indulge in a kind of “ornamentalism”, prose thickly laden with exotic nouns and sensuous adjectives, the kind that reminded me of Flaubert's Temptations of St. Antony or indeed of Wilde's Salome. See e.g. p. 77, 103. The marketplace, pp. 182–3, is also a staple of the genre, always a splendid opportunity to show off all manner of exotic things (even today, no swords-and-sorcery movie seems able to resist at least one marketplace scene). There is a nice scene of haggling in the oriental style on pp. 170–1.

In a dream, Teodorico has a very interesting conversation with the devil, who notes “how brilliant were the religions of the natural world in Greece, how sweet and beautiful” (p. 86) in contrast to the paleness and obsession with suffering introduced by Christianity (p. 87). I am broadly sympathetic to this argument. It reminds me of Swinburne's lines from Dolores: “What ailed us, O gods, to desert you/ For creeds that refuse and restrain?” Of course the ancient Greek religion shouldn't be excessively idealized either. My impression from reading Homer and various other works based on classical mythology is that the Greek gods were, by and large, an arrogant, stubborn, cold-hearted lot that a human supplicant certainly couldn't simply rely on. Nor did they provide much emotional support; besides, the Greek religion had to carry with it an unbearably heavy baggage of truly ridiculous myths, which can have been taken seriously in the prehistoric times when they evolved, but couldn't have been taken seriously any longer once the people and their society had matured beyond a certain point. This is why so many people abandoned classical Greek and Roman religion in favour of various cults that were spreading from the East in the first centuries AD; cults which provided somewhat more elegant myths, a softer kind of mysticism and better emotional crutches for the believers; cults of which Christianity eventually became the most successful one. This is not to say, of course, that the Christian mythology is not just as absurdly ridiculous as the Greek one; in fact, I would say that Christianity has outdone the Greeks in absurdity, while the Greek religion is better as far as poetical quality and esthetic value are concerned.

There are several hilarious mentions of truly preposterous fake relics. “[C]igar-holders made out of a piece of wood from Noah's ark” (p. 97); “a bit of straw from the crib and a piece of wood planed by St Joseph himself” (p. 109); “a fragment of the water jug with which the Virgin used to go to the fountain; a shoe from the donkey on which the Holy Family had fled into Egypt; and a twisted, rusty nail” (p. 223); and, of course, the crown of thorns made by Theodorico as a gift for his aunt (p. 122), in a box whose nails were taken from Noah's ark (p. 256). Later Teodorico takes up the fake relic business on a large scale, selling as many as fourteen horseshoes and seventy-five nails (p. 266).

As I mentioned above, one of Eça's main goals in this book is satirically criticizing various faults of Portuguese society. Thus we find Teodorico saying to a prostitute: “If ever you come to my country [...] girls like you are well-treated there, given respect, they get written up in the newspapers, they marry landowners...” (P. 107.) Surely this cannot have been intended by the author as anything other than a swipe at a society in which landowners marry women of light reputation. However, I must say that I disagree here with Eça's implied assumption that something is wrong with a society that treats prostitutes with respect and does not stigmatize them. In fact I think this is much preferable to treating them as outcasts. As for the marriage of a landowner and a prostitute, surely if anybody ought to feel he/she is marrying below his/her level it is the prostitute, who has been making her living in an honest way in a difficult enough job, while the fat rich bastard of a landowner probably rakes in bucketloads of money from his rents and hasn't done a day's work in his entire life. It's he that ought to be ashamed of himself, not she of herself.

“The Pharisee never viewed other than with rancour the Roman aqueduct that brought him water, the Roman road that carried him to other cities, the Roman baths that cured his rashes...” (P. 128.) This reminds me of Reg from The Life of Brian: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” However, if we laugh at Reg when he says this, it suggests that we believe that Roman occupation of Palestine was acceptable because it brought certain types of progress. This argument, of course, is very popular with imperialists of all periods and from all parts of the world (think of the European colonization of Africa in the late 19th century, for example). I can't possibly approve of that. If you want to let a foreign country benefit from your knowledge and experience, that doesn't mean you have to occupy it, station your army there and start exploiting it and collecting taxes. If they hadn't been occupied by Rome, the Palestinians would eventually achieve progress on their own, without having to lose their independence and risking the loss of their identity. Or, as Seneca writes of the Britons under Roman occupation (Agricola 21): “All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude.”

Curiously, in the chapter that takes place in the 1st-century Jerusalem, Teodorico mentions cigarettes several times, although they feel like a jarring anachronism; I can't help thinking that this must be deliberate, but I don't see why the author thought it necessary. Pp. 144, 178, 209; and a watch on p. 210.

Although Teodorico's sudden, unexplained move into the 1st century AD (and later back into the 19th) is fantastic, his brief stay in 1st-century Jerusalem is in fact presented in a fairly realistic way and we get to see the events connected with Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion in a relatively sober and reasonable way, just as such things might have really happened. Thus see pp. 165–8 on the political and religious background of Jesus' sentence; pp. 172–5 for a slightly different view of the expulsion of merchants from the temple; why the people wanted Barabbas to be pardoned, pp. 176–7; a mundane explanation of the “resurrection”, pp. 214–15. P. 200 seems to be a nice variation on the “cessation of the oracles” motive. This reminds me that I would like to read, at some point, some sober book written by some reasonable historian (preferrably one who doesn't take any religion in the least bit seriously) about the last days of Jesus as a historic event rather than an event with a religious significance. I'm sure that some such book must exist, but I'm not aware of any at the moment. But then I'm in no particular hurry to find it; I'm not interested in biblical history anyway. The ancient Hebrews were just a tribe of shepherds after all, a tribe like thousands of others all over the world; if it hadn't been for the fact that one of them, by a stroke of good luck, later ended up becoming the founder of a major world religion, we wouldn't be making all this fuss about them nowadays, and more than we do about the multitude of other obscure tribes who existed contemporary with them.

To conclude, I would like to recommend everyone who isn't averse to reading 19th-century novels to give Eça a try. The main reason why he isn't better known is surely in the fact that the wrote in Portuguese, which is a relatively obscure language. If he had written in one of the major languages, he might be just as well known as Flaubert or Zola.


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