More review-like recommendation-like Eça de Queirós writing today.
I direct the attention of the reader curious about Eça de Queirós but unwilling to commit to a thick novel, however juicy, to The Mandarin and Other Stories, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a mere 160 pages of fictional text.
The novella that leads the collection is a Voltaire-like fantasy, told with gleeful zest. The premise is an old moral dilemma: if you could murder a distant Chinese mandarin and inherit his fortune with no consequences, would you do it? The clerk who narrates the story can and does (the devil is brought in as a mechanical aid, although the narrator does not believe in the devil), but amidst his new wealth and decadent hedonism, he becomes tormented by visions of the mandarin, not just of the man himself but of his family, his position:
I felt doubly guilty for having deprived a whole society of an important personage, an experienced man of letters, a pillar of the Social Order, a mainstay of public institutions. You can’t just remove a man worth one hundred and six thousand contos from a country without upsetting the balance.
This absurd imaginative specificity is what makes the novella work. The clerk actually travels to China to try to right his wrong. Eça de Queirós can indulge, like his characters in fantasies of China, presenting heights of elegance and horrors of poverty, beauty and disgust, wisdom and incompetence, all of which has about as much to do with the actual China as Voltaire’s Lisbon and Brazil related to the real ones. The invented exoticism paradoxically makes the themes of the novel universal. Everything the clerk wanted to escape or experience exists in China as well as Lisbon. Perhaps we bring it with us, whatever it might be.
The wealthy man ends his account with a cry of despair: "And now the world seems to me a huge mound of ruins where my soul cries out ceaselessly, in exile among the fallen columns." His only consolation is that “not one Mandarin would remain alive if you, dear reader, creature improvised by God, a poor creation shaped out of poor clay, my fellow and my brother, if you could snuff him out as easily as I did and thus inherit all his millions!”
What, no, not me. Plus, this could never happen.
Anyway, 68 pages of amusing reading.