Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Eça de Queiros and his doubles - cluck-cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck-cluck!

Here’s another example:

Eça de Queiros and some of his prankster pals published, in 1869, a set of poems under the name of Fradique Mendes, Portuguese knockoffs of Baudelaire and other French avant-gardists.  Decades later, Eça resurrected the poet, making him the ideal post-Romantic type of the Great Man, brilliant and elegant, like the protagonist of The Maias but with more energy and talent.  The eventual result was a short novel-like object, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes (1888/1901), which pretends to be a collection of the letters of this exemplar, preceded by the author’s, Eça’s, own encounters with and biography of him.

The first joke is that “Eça” discovers Fradique Mendes through his only published works, those poems, “a revelation in art, a dawn of poetry coming into birth to bathe young souls in the light and special warmth to which they aspired” (5).  The second joke is thus Eça turning himself into the absurd devotee of poems he wrote as a gag.

The letters themselves are full of anecdotes, sketches, jokes with punchlines, witty asides, overheated rhetoric, and nothing resembling a story.  Some of the letters are addressed to real people.  Eça de Queiros can express outrageous views while hidden behind Fradique Mendes:

A man should only speak with impeccable assurance and purity the language of his own country; all the others he should speak poorly, poorly but proudly, with the flat and false accent that immediately marks him as a foreigner…  His patriotism disappears, diluted by foreignness. (73-4)

But of course, the witty and ironic Fradique may not mean a word he writes; the letter ends with conclusive evidence of his “admirable aunt who spoke only Portuguese (or rather, the Minho dialect).”  Wherever she traveled:

[she] would call over the waiter, fix her sharp and meaningful eyes on him, and squat gravely on the carper and imitate, with a slow puffing up of her ample skirts, a hen in the act of laying as she shouted cluck-cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck-cluck! (75)

And she always got her eggs.

The example I want to keep is that of the novelist coming up with a fictional mouthpiece, a common enough practice, but then pairing him up with a parodic version of himself, perhaps still common, but then making both character and narrator so inscrutably ironic that the author is not only free to express his most deeply-held views, but also their opposite, and, why not, some other ideas that no one believes, but are amusing.

Gregory Rabassa gave this novel its English debut.  I wrote at some point that I was not so concerned with where to start with a writer like Eça, but I would like to amend that opinion: do not start with Correspondence of Fradique Mendes.  The jokes are of the inside variety – I guess an outside joke is merely a joke.  The way to join the jokes on the inside of this novel is to read a lot of 19th century French poetry and a stack of Eça de Queiros novels, two good ideas.


  1. A friend of mine piqued at the constant rejection of his poetry invented a persona as a Mexican-Irish poet, a true gringo, and got published. This was in New Irish Writing when David Marcus was editor and all the luminaries placed work there, McGahern, O'Brien etc. The curious thing was that even knowing that, it wasn't bad though the tact for which I'm famed did not allow me so to state.

  2. Mexican-Irish, that's a good one. I wonder how common these kinds of pranks are, especially in poetry, although there are cases like Romain Gary and Walter Scott in fiction.

    The case of this Eça novel is obviously rare, where the early prank grows into something more substantial.

    Maybe prank is the wrong word. Experiment.

  3. I had no idea this short novel had been translated already. There's practically nothing left at this point, except for O Conde de Abranhos, which to me is better, funnier and overall more interesting than this.

    It may interested you that Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa used Fradique Mendes as a character in his novel Creole.

  4. Published just this November, actually. Brand new. The same people (Tagus Press) are publishing a new translation of The Relic in April. Maybe they will get to O Conde de Abranhos someday.

    You are right to think it interests me that Fradique Mendes has been drafted into another writer's novel. That is fascinating.

  5. Oh, before I forget - welcome to book blogging!

  6. Thanks!

    Tagus Press is a great name for a book publisher.

  7. Reading The Book of Disquiet at the same time I was re-reading The Maias, I found the bridges between the two to be fairly solidly constructed - so it's particularly interesting to see Eca de Queiros playing with his own version of heteronyms. I probably won't get to Fradique Mendes anytime soon, but I'm glad you did.

  8. No kidding. I would not have guessed that, honestly. Although how could prose-writing Pessoa completely dodge Eça, and why would he?

  9. Dear Tom, if you could confirm something, I'd be greatly thankful: does this edition contain the 16 letters, or just the narrator's remembrance and notes?

  10. Yes, the Tagus Press translation has the letters, too.

    1. Yeah, I just re-read my edition, and you cite bits that weren't in mine so I had to check. Damn, now I'm pissed I bought a deficient edition...

      I only found out there were letters after I read my edition a couple of years ago. I don't understand why modern editions don't include everything. Well, you Americans are luckier then :)