Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Heavens, what a good smell of church - the hypocrisies of The Relic by Eça de Queirós

I have never read a novel like The Relic, the peculiar 1887 masterpiece by José Maria Eça de Queirós.  It is both one thing and another.  Both things are good.  The meshing of the things is unique.  I would like to think that with some effort I could come up with a more precise word than “things.”

Teodorico is an orphan, now an adult, dependent for everything on his horrible Auntie who is not merely pious but a religious fanatic, while Teodorico is a sensualist.  A sample of awful Auntie:

In her presence the prudent friends of the house had learnt not to mention interesting stories read in the newspapers revealing a love motive, since they scandalized her like a naked offence.  “Padre Pinheiro,” she called out one day furiously with blazing eyes to the luckless priest, on hearing him tell of  a servant girl in France who had thrown her child into a drain.  “Padre Pinheiro, be good enough to respect me.  It is not the drain, it is the child that disgusts me.”  (27)

With Auntie, Teodorico is a hypocrite and liar, waiting for her to die, spending his allowance on operas and a favorite prostitute.  He always goes to Mass before visiting her in the hope that one of Auntie’s friends will observe his devotion.  He carries incense in his pocket and, after an amorous evening:

I would go furtively into the deserted stables at the further end of the courtyard and on the lid of a barrel burn a piece of the holy resin, and remain there bathing in its purifying odor the lapels of my coat and my manly beard.  Then I went up and had the satisfaction of hearing Auntie sniff delightedly and say: “Heavens, what a good smell of church”; and with a modest shrug I would murmur: “It is I, Auntie.” (27)

Much of the comedy of the novel comes from the baldness, the purity of Teodorico’s hypocrisy.  I was on to him, I thought.  Soon he will slip up and reveal that he is The Unreliable Narrator.  But no, he is in fact completely reliable.  Whoever he thinks he is telling his story to – himself, a future reader, who knows – is getting the truth.  The fun, then, is the contrast between the secret truth, which I am in on, and the lie that is the rest of his life.  I’m sure rigging the novel the other way would be fun, too, but this is fine.

This puts me about one-seventh of the way into  the novel.  Maybe I will have to write about it for six more days.

The Relic was reissued a few months ago by Tagus Press; the translation, by Aubrey Bell, is from 1925.  I have no doubt that the more recent Margaret Jull Costa translation is as good or better, but this one is fine.  I had meant to read The Relic back during the Great Portuguese Event, but I had run myself ragged.  My energy has returned, so I’ll spend another day or two, not six, with Eça.


  1. By coincidence, today sees the review of my first Eça de Queiroz read, 'Alves & Co.'...

    ...and you get the credit/blame ;)

    I'm already looking forward to another one - what would you suggest?

    1. A book of similar length and, I think, even better is The Mandarin, a far cry from his naturalistic style.

      Of course if you're up to something longer, The Crime of Father Amaro or Cousin Basilio are very good novels.

      It's just a pity O Conde de Abranhos isn't in English yet, it's one of the funniest, most perfect novellas I've ever read about politics and arrivistes.

    2. Hmmm, lets see... O Conde Abranhos, about 80 pages, out of copyright, looks doable. I'm not promising anything but by the end of the year your statement that Count Abranhos isn't available in English may no longer be true. And thanks to Scribd it can be freely distributed to everybody who wants to read it. Miguel, I'll let you know when it's available.

    3. OK, what I wanted to ask before I deleted this was, are you perchance also Portuguese? Or have you learned the language?

      Anyway, a translation would be very good, of course; I'm sure Eça's fans would appreciate. There's no excuse why it's not available, when weaker efforts like The City and the Mountains are.

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    1. Ah, stupid me, deleted the wrong post!

      The Relic and To The Capital are my two favourite Eças, the best expressions of his humor. I especially love the business acumen he shows after returning from Jerusalem, but I'll let you find out for yourself.

      It's curious that the protagonist is called Teodorico - Teo = god. But it's also similar to Teodoro, the equally unscrupulous protagonist of The Mandarin, tempted by the devil.

  3. Miguel's first post was an outstanding Eça overview and I would follow his advice. The Maias is incomparable but long, although Eça earns the length. If you were happy with Alves, I'll tell you, that's one of his minor books.

    The Relic revisits The Mandarin in a number of amusing ways. That would be a nice idea to work through, although I am not going to do it.

    The whole post-Jerusalem post-crisis business is quite subtle. The novel is essentially pro-hypocrisy.

  4. The Relic is one of my favorite books. Like most Eça de Queiroz you know what's going to happen in advance but you enjoy the fine ride regardless. The dreams alone make it worth talking about for another six days.

  5. What, really, a translation? Look at the good a book blog can do!

    The vision will get a day. It is the "another thing" I mention up at the top, and then never again, I guess. Well planned, pardner.