Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. New York, NY: New Directions Press, 2017. 415 pages. $17.95.
How do great empires end? With a violent bang, or do they fade away until, as in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” they’ve turned to dust? Last year’s stunning Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election have left many wondering if we are currently witnessing the West’s fall from world dominance, if our power, influence, and prestige will soon be eclipsed by China as our liberal institutions are compromised by rising tides of nationalism, xenophobia, and fascism. Some pundits claim that Brexit and Trump are the proof that, after a good century’s run, the era of Western democracy has finally come to the end of the line. And now, we’re left to mourn the good old days when “liberty, equality, fraternity” reigned supreme and yesteryear’s heroes who could rescue us from the darkness of the new age to come. Yet no matter how much we long to resurrect the glorious past, history has proven time and again that it is never as glorious as we’ve imagined, nor are its heroes as brave, admirable, or illustrious as their myth.
The long dead past is what haunts Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, the hero of José Maria de Eça de Queirós’s The Illustrious House of Ramires. Gonçalo, a Portuguese nobleman, is the last male heir to an ancient and noble line whose fortunes, like Portugal’s, have seen better days. The novel by Eça de Queirós, published posthumously in 1900, is a satiric look at the existential state of Portuguese society on the brink of the modern age, when European imperialism was in its death throes and Portugal’s great monarchs, who dispatched explorers to the ends of the Earth, had given up the ghost long ago. By the end of the nineteenth century, the kingdom was in shambles. Portugal was forced to cede land in its colonies in southern Africa to Great Britain and, at home, the government was locked in bitter disputes over which party should rule and whether it was finally time to put the failing constitutional monarchy out of its misery in order to establish a modern republic founded upon democratic and liberal ideals.
This setting provides the backdrop for the novel in which we follow the romantic adventures of the country’s “most authentic nobleman,” our Gonçalo who is forced to make his way in a world where the aristocratic class, into which he has been born, has become increasingly petty, corrupt, and irrelevant to the modern times. Even though his family dates back to the time before the Portuguese kings, when his father dies, all he inherits are debts, moldy portraits of his less-than-illustrious ancestors that hang on his manor house’s walls and the crumbling estate in Santa Ireneia, a provincial backwater, where he has been forced to live in self-imposed exile far from Lisbon’s glittering highlife. To provide himself with enough income to live on, Gonçalo is forced to rent out his fields to the highest bidder, and the children of the peasants who have worked the land for generations are dying from poverty, disease, and neglect. Despite his less-than-glowing prospects for the future, the Nobleman of the Tower, as everyone reverently calls him, still clings to his great expectations. Someday he will finally break down “the wall . . . separating him from wealth and success” to return to Lisbon as the toast of the town, with a seat in Parliament and his historical “Novella,” The Tower of Dom Ramires, under his belt, for which he will be fêted by one and all as the Portuguese Walter Scott. Who knows—he may even make the brilliant match that would finally reverse the family’s fortunes for good.
However, on his journey to fame and fortune, Gonçalo faces some daunting roadblocks, especially in the form of his former childhood friend and current nemesis, Dr. André Cavaleiro, the Governor of Oliveira, with whom he broke after André left Gonçalo’s beloved sister, Graça, in the lurch.
André Cavaleiro possesses all that Gonçalo longs for—power, prestige, wealth, sex appeal, and a brilliant political career. Despite his glowing public image, André’s character leaves much to be desired—he’s an immoral opportunist, a serial seducer, and a dandy. Yet Gonçalo is no saint to André’s sinner. His soul is rife with contradictions, and his moral compass moves in whatever direction the wind is blowing. When it’s politically advantageous, he summarily ends his bitter feud with André, because without the Governor of Oliveira’s help, he cannot hope to win the Parliamentary seat he so covets. He mends fences knowing that doing so leaves his beloved Gracinha, who has, in the interim married the affable, if dim-witted José Barrolo on the rebound, vulnerable to her former suitor’s renewed advances, gossip and possible scandal.
At every turn, Gonçalo proves himself to be a perfectly inconsistent hero; at one moment, petty and cruel—a conceited snob and hopeless coward—who just as suddenly turns into a paragon of virtue and compassion, a shining example of humility and noblesse oblige. Yet it’s Gonçalo’s glaring inconsistencies and human frailty that make the nobleman so likeable and the satire ring so funny and true.
Even though many critics call Eça de Queirós the Portuguese Flaubert or Stendhal, the novel’s sumptuous interiors, epicurean feasts, and aesthete dandies are more reminiscent of Joris-Karl Huysmans and his decadent masterpiece, À rebours. According to Maria Filomena Mónica, one of Eça de Queirós’s biographers, it was Huysmans to whom the writer “was the closest.” So when Castanheiro tells Gonçalo that “he does not even have to leave the house” to pen his novella, one feels the presence of Huysmans’s protagonist, Des Esseintes, a man who abandons a trip to London because he realizes that the real London could never compare to the London a man of his taste could conjure up within the confines of his home. But because the line is said by the pompous Castanheiro, it’s clear that that Eça de Queirós is taking the piss out of effete dandies like Des Esseintes who prefer to shut themselves off from the real world rather than live in it. As far as Flaubert, in one exchange, Eça de Queirós pokes fun at the immortal writer when Gonçalo announces that he will write his novella in “the lapidary style” of Salammbô, which is meant to be understood as overwrought. Indeed, if The Illustrious House of Ramires is any indication, Eça de Queirós had little love for the French or the influence French culture had on Portuguese society, even though he spent his final years in France; one only needs to think of his antagonist, André Cavaleiro—his Gallic first name says it all.
While Eça de Queirós isn’t keen on France, he seems to have genuine affection for England, where he spent many years as a diplomat, even though he once quipped that “everything about [English] society was disagreeable to [him].” In many ways, The House of Ramires is an English novel set in Portugal and written in Portuguese. The characters feel drawn from English Lit 101; the bildungsroman and romance, Fielding, the biting satire with its impoverished aristocrats, nouveau riche heiresses and corrupt politicians, Trollope. Gonçalo’s grandiose ambitions for his Novella, with a capital “N,” sound familiarly like the pretensions of the noblewoman turned lady author by necessity in The Way We Live Now, Lady Carbury, who was “devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L.” Then there’s Barrolo, the kind-hearted country squire and all-around good old chap, later perfected on screen by Nigel Bruce. There are the dowager Lousada sisters, who terrorize the village with their gossip and innuendo like many a patrician biddy in Austen. In addition to these characters, there’s Gonçalo and Gracinha’s English governess who makes a brief appearance in a fond flashback. But most of all, there’s Bento, Gonçalo’s loyal and wise manservant, always the voice of reason in the face of upper-class stupidity; Bento, Jeeves to Gonçalo’s Bertie Wooster avant la lettre. And, then, of course, there’s always Walter Scott.
Ironically, Gonçalo doesn’t find success as the Portuguese Walter Scott, even though his book is published to great acclaim. Instead another English writer, H. Ridger Haggard, whose King’s Solomon’s Mines Eça de Queirós translated into Portuguese, plants the seed that makes Gonçalo realize that the social successes he’d always dreamed of—literary acclaim, riches and a brilliant political career—are illusory, as is his veneration for the past so much dust. He stuns all of Lisbon when he renounces his position and quietly sails to Africa, just when he has the city at his feet. Like Haggard’s Allan Quartermain, Gonçalo leaves society to becomes a man of destiny and adventure, an explorer of lost worlds like his illustrious ancestors. And so, as his own man on his own terms, he finally rules the day. And as for Gonçalo, so, too, must Portugal, which our hero represents, embrace its own destiny to rise again.
With so few translations ever making it to the American market, it’s always interesting when a publisher decides a work merits a new translation. At first glance, the novel’s complex linguistic registers—the novel-within-a-novel’s archaic diction, Uncle Duarte’s heroic verse, Eça de Queirós’s wit, the locals’ slang, and the exquisite lyrical descriptions of the Portuguese countryside, all removed by a century from today—seem impossible to render faithfully in English translation. Anne Stevens’s previous go is a valiant effort, but her choices ultimately fail to live up to the genius of Eça de Queirós’s multilayered original that Jull Costa, in this welcome new version, has mastered.
Finally, we have an Illustrious House of Ramires worthy of Eça de Queirós, one of the great luminaries of European modernism. It’s a shame that his work is relatively unknown outside of Portugal, since few of his contemporaries had as keen insight into contradictions that were tearing fin de siècle European society apart. In one brilliant exchange between aristocrat and servant, Gonçalo, frustrated that the monarchy no longer supports its nobles, muses that “the whole institution of the monarchy is wearing rather thin.” To which Bento “gravely” adds, “it would seem so, sir . . . Even O Século is saying that the kings are on the way out, and it could happen any day.” Although Eça de Queirós never lived to see it, he was on to something. The end of the Empire was drawing near. It would start out with a bang in 1908, when King Carlos I and his heir were assassinated in the streets of Lisbon, and then end with a whimper when the last Portuguese king, Manuel II, was forced to abdicate and flee to England. These kings’ fates were mere prelude to the big bang that toppled a certain Archduke Ferdinand on a summer day in Sarajevo. Thus, the illustrious European empires fell, in a violent bloodbath, buried in an uneasy peace. The Illustrious House of Ramires proves that while great empires may come and go, the spirit of Eça de Queirós’s vision, his art, will live on to ever-greater glory.