Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dear reader, creature improvised by God, a poor creation shaped out of poor clay, my fellow and my brother - satirical Eça de Queirós

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.


  1. An orientalist, eh?

    It says in my Books Read that I enjoyed José Matias most - but I don't remember the slightest thing about it now.

  2. That does sound like Voltaire. I should look into EdQ's stories, then. Illustrious House of Ramires is hi-sterical so far. Chapter One ends with a brilliant passage about attempting to write despite having no inspiration. There's also some good stuff about plagiarism, historical source materials and the life of a landlord.

    ~scott bailey

  3. Are you sure you're not being subsidized by the Eça de Queirós estate to pump up his book sales? Because these works sure all sound interesting, elaborate toothpick-holder descriptions or not. "Absurd imaginative specificity" seems to be one of EdQ's most pleasing trademark trademarks.

  4. Who's the orientalist, me or E de Q? Guilty either way.

    I'll put up something about "Jose Matias" tomorrow, maybe - that is a good one. A clean central idea.

    That specificity is the part of the aesthetic I understand well - the path from Flaubert to Proust to Nabokov etc. E de Q is not as strong on ideas, to pick a part of literature I do not understand, as, say, Proust. In general, he is strong on character and details, light on ideas. Thus, my sympathy!

    Ramires - I am just a chapter in, myself - is almost incomprehensibly thick with Portuguese stuff but is just as Scott describes it. Can it stay this good?

  5. "Voltairish"? You got me there. I'll look for it.
    I'm interested in The Crime of Father Amaro too

  6. I'm on a chapter in Father Amaro that is more brutally anti-clerical than anything I have read in French literature (although not, I am certain, than anything that exists in French literature). It is fascinating.