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.