Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A vast sunshade bristling with toothpicks - the meaningful monkey knickknacks of Eça de Queirós

The only part of Cousin Bazilio that I must – must! – write about (we are in the home of a young, middle-class couple; some friends have come over; Juliana is the servant I mentioned yesterday):

The Councillor intervened gravely:

‘No,’ he said, ‘I cannot believe that our Jorge is serious.  He’s too educated to have ideas which are so…’

He hesitated, searching for the right adjective.  Juliana appeared in front of him bearing a tray on which a silver monkey was crouched in comical fashion beneath a vast sunshade bristling with toothpicks.  He took one, bowed and concluded:

‘… so uncivilized.’ (40)

As usual, Eça de Queirós is right about everything.  Jorge is only pretending to have such uncivilized ideas (I will omit the plot-relevant foreshadowing of the idea itself), and the silver monkey is comical!

Ha ha ha – well, slightly comical, but due to a critical failure of internet-based technology the only silver monkey with a toothpick parasol that I could find is mounted on an elephant, and I assume that the crouching of the unmounted monkey is much funnier, and that the sunshade is much vaster.  I politely borrowed the picture from silverplateflatware.net, a place I bet you do not want to visit.

Anyway, that’s the sort of thing the novel’s heroine has in her house.  It stands out.  Eça de Queirós presumably had seen this delightful item somewhere, and perhaps even owned it himself.  Within the novel, the toothpick monkey tells us something about the bourgeois taste of its owners, and introduces a silly taste of colonial exoticism.

No novelist worthy of Flaubert will stop at that point – there is a second monkey connected to the first.  We move to a “domestic employment agency,” run by a working-class con-woman who will assist Juliana with her blackmail scheme:

Above the sofa [it pains me to omit the details of the repulsive sofa] hung a lithograph of Senhor Dom Pedro IV.  Between the two windows stood a tall dresser and, on it, flanked by a statue of St Anthony and a box made of shells, was a small stuffed monkey with glass eyes, balanced on the branch of a tree. (237)

I did not try to find an image of this hideous object.   We see why Eça de Queirós had Juliana handle the silver monkey in the first passage, since the monkeys are links between the servant’s two worlds.  Whatever was in marginal or even good taste is sordidly parodied at the crooked employment agency.  The crouching of this monkey, between Church and State, is also comical.

Whenever I go on about the method or technique of Flaubert, I usually mean devices like these matching monkeys.  They can be awfully hard to detect on a first reading of a novel, but the toothpick monkey happened to be odd enough that I was able to remember it.  I was not in the least surprised by its grotesque reprise - that's how this sort of book works.  I am sure there are more monkey-like goodies in Cousin Bazilio that I missed.

Somehow I forgot to mention yesterday that the translator of Cousin Bazilio is the unsurpassable Margaret Jull Costa.


  1. I'm glad you mentioned the translator, as I just returned from the library carting away my copy of "Cousin Bazilio" as translated by Roy Campbell (no MJC available, alas). Any insight into this translation vs. MJC's?

    Also, I feel compelled to admit - and not proudly - that I have, on the night table next to my bed, a hideous, inherited reading lamp featuring a monkey that holds out a plate on which one might well place a supply of toothpicks. From your post above, I gather that "Cousin Bazilio"'s place on the night table next to the lamp is sheer destiny.

  2. I do not know anything about the earlier translation, and Costa is not one of those translators who goes after her predecessors.

    Good gravy, I just came across a toothpick holder in The Crime of Padre Amaro: "the toothpick holder they were all so fond of - a chubby Cupid holding an open umbrella bristling with toothpicks" (93, Costa)

  3. I've enjoyed reading all three of your posts on Eca de Quieros. As usual, you have found a classic author I never heard of and made me interested in reading his work.

    An aside, while I have not interest at all in silverplateflatware.net, it's just the sort of site my partner can spend hours on.

  4. Oh good, I'm glad the antique silver site found a taker.

    EdeQ is so good - I am now trying to find the boundary, so to speak. Not that I necessarily endorse reading him a shelf at a time like I have been doing.