I have never read a novel like The Relic, the peculiar 1887 masterpiece by José Maria Eça de Queirós. It is both one thing and another. Both things are good. The meshing of the things is unique. I would like to think that with some effort I could come up with a more precise word than “things.”
Teodorico is an orphan, now an adult, dependent for everything on his horrible Auntie who is not merely pious but a religious fanatic, while Teodorico is a sensualist. A sample of awful Auntie:
In her presence the prudent friends of the house had learnt not to mention interesting stories read in the newspapers revealing a love motive, since they scandalized her like a naked offence. “Padre Pinheiro,” she called out one day furiously with blazing eyes to the luckless priest, on hearing him tell of a servant girl in France who had thrown her child into a drain. “Padre Pinheiro, be good enough to respect me. It is not the drain, it is the child that disgusts me.” (27)
With Auntie, Teodorico is a hypocrite and liar, waiting for her to die, spending his allowance on operas and a favorite prostitute. He always goes to Mass before visiting her in the hope that one of Auntie’s friends will observe his devotion. He carries incense in his pocket and, after an amorous evening:
I would go furtively into the deserted stables at the further end of the courtyard and on the lid of a barrel burn a piece of the holy resin, and remain there bathing in its purifying odor the lapels of my coat and my manly beard. Then I went up and had the satisfaction of hearing Auntie sniff delightedly and say: “Heavens, what a good smell of church”; and with a modest shrug I would murmur: “It is I, Auntie.” (27)
Much of the comedy of the novel comes from the baldness, the purity of Teodorico’s hypocrisy. I was on to him, I thought. Soon he will slip up and reveal that he is The Unreliable Narrator. But no, he is in fact completely reliable. Whoever he thinks he is telling his story to – himself, a future reader, who knows – is getting the truth. The fun, then, is the contrast between the secret truth, which I am in on, and the lie that is the rest of his life. I’m sure rigging the novel the other way would be fun, too, but this is fine.
This puts me about one-seventh of the way into the novel. Maybe I will have to write about it for six more days.
The Relic was reissued a few months ago by Tagus Press; the translation, by Aubrey Bell, is from 1925. I have no doubt that the more recent Margaret Jull Costa translation is as good or better, but this one is fine. I had meant to read The Relic back during the Great Portuguese Event, but I had run myself ragged. My energy has returned, so I’ll spend another day or two, not six, with Eça.