José Maria de Eça de Queirós is, according to several sources (including Encyclopedia Britannica and novelist Jose Saramago), considered Portugal’s greatest novelist, yet his works are apparently just now becoming available in English. He introduced realism to Portuguese literature and idolized Flaubert and Balzac while earning comparisons to Zola.
His novel The City and the Mountains, published in Portugal a year after his death and recently translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is a fable wrapped in a paean to natural and rural living. The story revolves around the narrator’s lifelong friend, Jacinto, who lives in luxury in Paris surrounded by high society and machines designed to make his life easier, yet who is miserable and dying of ennui until a chance occurrence recalls him to his ancestral home in the fictional countryside town of Tormes, Portugal.
The novel begins in in Paris (the City) and ends in Tormes (the Mountains), moving from a satire of the decadent and spiritually bankrupt Paris of the late 1800s to the pure, honest, yet feudal society of the still-agrarian Portuguese country. Jacinto’s life in Paris is one of misadventure more than adventure, especially as his machines malfunction, leading him to try to acquire bigger and more complex machines to replace them. Eça de Quierós lampoons the opulence and conspicuous consumption of Parisian society with depictions of over-the-top parties and empty-headed aristocrats as Jacinto drifts unwittingly into soul-crushing despair. Even the religion of the wealthy city-dwellers is perfunctory and perhaps faithless, more concerned with status and the religious hierarchy than questions of piety and charity.
Yet a chance event in Tormes beckons him home, a trip for which he tries to pack as many of his earthly possessions, fearing (ironically) boredom in the isolated hillside town where his family estate lies. After the comic misadventures of the multi-day train trip with the narrator, Zé Fernandes, they arrive in Tormes and Jacinto gradually rediscovers himself, according to Zé:
I forthrightly compared him to an etiolated plant that had been shriveling up in the darkness, among rugs and silks, but which, once placed outside in the wind and the sun and watered profusely, grows green again, bursts into flower and does honor to Mother Nature! … In the City, his eyes had grown crepuscular, as if averted from the World; now, though, there danced in them a noon-tide light, resolute and generous, content to drink in the beauty of things. Even his moustache had grown curly.
Yet Tormes isn’t quite the paradise Jacinto first believes it to be, as the income disparity that was hidden from view in Paris is out in the open on his family’s vast estate. Jacinto himself decides to take on the role of social reformer in the face of opposition from the caretakers, standing in as symbols of the old way of life. It is, in many ways, a call to action to readers who have lost their spirits in the great cities of the time: return to the country, to nature, to your faith, and to your humanity. Even if the setting is dated, the disconnect with nature and the emotional desolation of city life is more than ever a part of our society (and I say that as an unabashed fan in many ways of great cities).
Eça de Queirós litters the book with direct and indirect allusions to literary works, particularly Don Quixote (also a tale of two friends on a quest) and Homer’s The Odyssey (also a quest, one where the main character, like Jacinto, returns at the end to the place of his birth). The two main characters read and re-read these works, and Zé does comment on the parallels between their quest and those of the stories they read, but Eça de Queirós imbues his characters’ quest with a more urgent meaning while still bringing much of the comic brilliance of Cervantes, perhaps even more impressively since he doesn’t get to use the obvious dim-bulb jokes on which Cervantes could rely.
I was talking to We’ve Got Heart’s Kristen H. about the book, and she brought up The Alchemist. I found The City and the Mountains to be a better book overall, with a stronger plot and much better prose, while also offering a powerful message, one with both mundane and spiritual elements.
Next up: Our friend Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, still just $5.99 hardcover at amazon.com.