Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Maias discussion: Chapters 1 – 6

Eça de Queirós’ novel is a chronicle of the Maia family and, to some extent, of Portugal in the 19th century. While I’m only a quarter of the way through the book, it reminds me of a Benito Pérez Galdós novel I’ve read (which is a good thing). The first six chapters give a quick history of the Maias down to Carlos Eduardo da Maia, following the family and Carlos through his graduation from University.

While there is a lot going on with the story, I’ll mainly focus on two major themes. One is the decline of Portugal on the world stage. Much is made of the country’s increasing irrelevance, not just with the world but even within the country. At almost every turn there is disappointment voiced over some failing of the government or its citizens. João da Ega, Carlos’ close friend, sums it up in one of his many diatribes:
“In that case,” said Ega, “if there aren’t enough women, we’ll have to import them, which is what usually happens in Portugal. Here we import everything. Ideas, laws, philosophies, theories, plots, aesthetics, sciences, style, industries, fashions, manners, jokes, everything arrives in crates by steamship. Civilisation comes at a very high price, what with the customs duties one has to pay, and, besides, it’s second-hand, it wasn’t made for us, and so it’s all a bit short in the sleeve. We imagine that we’re civilized in just the same way as the blacks in São Tomé imagine that they’re gentlemen, or even that they’re white, merely because they wear the boss’s old tailcoat over their loincloth. We’re nothing but a useless lazy rabble.”

Ega even condemns fellow countrymen for complimenting his unwritten book, simply because the praise is phrased in a manner he finds cloddish. While much of the blame for the decline is laid at the feet of 19th century history in Portugal (repeated foreign invasions, disintegrating empire, financial woes, etc.), another theme highlighting a generational conflict reinforces and complements the national slide. The tension is not an overt clash but a continual move away from traditional values, leaving each generation a little more unmoored and less grounded. It can be as simple as Pedro and Maria viewing Afonso as antiquated (“the world has moved on and left behind it the starchy attitudes of the sixteenth century”). Or it can be more complicated as reflected in the levels of accepted decadence. The financial bankruptcy of the government seems to be a symbol of the country’s moral bankruptcy.

Also feeding into this is the social stratification, with the moneyed and landed class free to pursue self-indulgence and cost is no object. With nothing to do and all the time to do it, the younger generation’s energy is unchanneled. They spout the most revolutionary rhetoric assuming that it possibly couldn’t happen or that, even if it did, they would not bear any of the costs. Afonso reflects the best of the older generation, strict but with a loving heart. Carlos, despite having everything provided by his grandfather, fails to pursue anything constructive beyond his initial flurries of interest. Eça de Queirós presents all of this non-judgmentally, letting the action speak for itself.

The blend of history and fiction yields a rich tapestry of late 19th-century Portugal. It doesn’t appear that the impending twists and turns will be much of a surprise since Eça de Queirós weakly hides or misdirects major items that will play a part later in the book (or so I’m guessing at this point). Yet it is still a wonderful read and highly recommended. I hope to post a list of characters and footnotes that will benefit those discovering this book.

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