Thursday, August 30, 2012

The soothing presentiment that Auntie would soon die and molder in her grave - The Relic takes its hypocrisy on the road

A couple of major jolts to the plot occur about one-seventh of the way into The Relic – the one-seventh mark is not where good novel-writing principle says to put a major turn, but The Relic is a strangely structured novel – and Teodorico learns that in all likelihood his rich Auntie will leave her wealth to the Church, not to him.  He amps up his pious act (“in Auntie’s presence I ascetically drank a glass of water and ate a crust of bread”) between visits to his kept woman (33).  His piety impresses his aunt who offers him – or demands – a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the acquisition of a holy relic.

“What a tremendous bore!  Jerusalem!” (47)  He wanted to go to Paris.  But Teodorico quickly realizes the opportunity at hand as he begins to imagine, what else, the exotic prostitutes.  Teodorico is not just a character in a Portuguese Flaubert novel – he is almost a Portuguese Flaubert.  I occasionally wondered if Eça de Queirós had somehow seen some of Flaubert’s letters from Egypt, the ones about his uninhibited sexual adventures, but that seems impossible, and Teodorico is completely unlike Flaubert in that he is a sentimental sensualist who falls in love with his fling.

The novel now turns into a kind of travel book, although Teodorico, more interested in women than culture or history, is a bad guide.  He barely sees Egypt – barely leaves his new companion’s bedroom.  Jerusalem is mostly the source of complaints:  dirt, boredom, tourist traps.  He does find his relic: a branch of a thorn tree, surely the same kind of tree that supplied Christ’s crown of thorns, possibly even the exact tree, prove that it ain’t.  In a peculiarly Proustian passage a suspicious Teodorico interrogates the tree:

The monster remained dumb, but suddenly I felt within my soul, like the consoling freshness of a summer breeze, the soothing  presentiment that Auntie would soon die and molder in her grave.  The Tree of Thorns, through the general communication of Nature, sent from its sap into my blood the sweet announcement of Dona Patrocinio’s death, as a sufficient promise that none of its branches, when transferred to the oratory, would prevent the horrible old lady’s liver from being the death of her.  (93)

What Teodorico does not realize – as the narrator, writing in retrospect, he must, but he plays dumb – is that 1) the thorn branch is not the first but actually the second relic he has acquired, the first something rather more secular he picked up in Egypt, and 2) the branch, and the other relic, too, are genuinely capable of miracles.  I count three between them (the relics have to cooperate on one of the miracles). 

Miracle # 2 is the final big plot twist, one that is visible many pages earlier and almost painful to see approach, although when I consider that the victim of the twist is the one writing the book the pain of the false tension becomes psychologically interesting.  #3 comes when Teodorico hits bottom, allowing him to Learn His Lesson, not a lesson that I was expecting.  The Relic is essentially pro-hypocrisy:  the right hypocrisy for the right reason.

Then there is Miracle #1.  That’s the wild one.  So that’s tomorrow.


  1. This is making me feel so nostalgic about the good times I had reading this novel. I'm trying to resist the temptation of re-reading it; I have so many books piling around demanding my attention, but Teodorico is such an irresistible character.

    By the way, I just noticed what a lovely name Patrocínio is. It's obviously connected with patronage, but it also comes from the verb patrocinar, to sponsor. It's a rather appropriate name since Teodorico lives off her.

  2. Then there is potential miracle #4--that the branch might be authentic and heal his aunt of her ailments. That would never do for Teodorico since it would delay his inheritance.

  3. How fun—The plot is starting to sound like Trollope's *The Bertrams* except with more trollops.

    I'm sorry. It was too easy.

    Still, I'm glad to hear of other novels that travel to Jerusalem. I always think of William Holman Hunt's paintings when I picture nineteenth century trips to the Holy Land.

  4. OK, that settles it. Tomorrow is Relic Reading day. This is the reason why I come to this blog, you make me want to read (or re-read) the books you blog about; not to mention the occasional brilliant insight into the workings or meaning of said books.

  5. I begin to wonder about other names. The German classicist Topsius, for example. Funny how the allegorical names seem natural here.

    Holy Land fiction is almost its own genre. I was constantly reminded of Melville's Clarel and Kinglake's Eothen (mostly non-fiction, I guess), but that was largely just because every traveler went to the same places and saw the same things.

    I think, Dwight, that the healing miracle is exactly the one that cannot happen in the world of the novel. Auntie is utterly mistaken about the power of relics.

    M. Humble - good, excellent. My pieces on the novel have felt so plodding compared to the fine comedy I pass up as I slog through them. As long as I can put up some of Eça's own words, though - at least show what the book looks like.

  6. I'm just glad you're getting this out and others want to read it. I tried pushing it but didn't seem to get any response.

    And yes, I was kidding on the healing miracle, although it was a concern for the lusty lad.

  7. Dwight's Relic roundup.

    And his run-through of Chapter 3, which I plan to rewrite today. Or I could just take the day off and paste in Dwight's piece. No, I guess I'll write my own.