Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Maias discussion: Chapters 11 – 14

The melodrama continues…

The plot of The Maias is rather thin, standard soap opera fare, but the richness of the telling is the reason to read the book. Not just the characters, but 1880s Portugal comes to life. The relationships between the male characters develop and seem truer to life than most novels. Rarely do I feel like condemning the immature or horrid acts of the characters as Eça de Queirós has presented them completely, not just a caricature. Also, even though he telegraphs major plot developments, getting there is most of the enjoyment. So a few notes on that enjoyment…

The echoing or doubling of action continues to surface. Just a few of the examples:

  • Maria Eduarda’s acts of charity, compared to that of Maria Monforte as well as Afonso,
  • Carlos stumbling upon Miss Sara having sex with a farm laborer while he is going to his tryst with Maria Eduarda (and of course the irony of his condemnation and hypocrisy of his rationalization). The additional irony is Maria Eduarda’s evaluation of Sara’s attitude toward Portugal: “Oh, she loathes it already! It’s too hot and smelly, the people are hideous…oh, and she goes in fear of being insulted in the street…In short, she’s miserable and can’t wait to leave.”
  • Carlos’ affair with the Countess unraveling as compared to Ega’s embarrassment with Raquel Cohen,
  • Maria Eduarda’s love of order in her house, even though her personal life hides a deep disorder.

One metaphor that appears several times in Chapter 14 has to do with mud:

“If,” he [Carlos] wrote to Ega, “she really has passed from you to Dâmaso, then you must act just as you would if your cigar had fallen in the mud; you can’t possibly pick it up and continue smoking it yourself; you should, therefore, simply allow the urchin who did pick it up to smoke it in peace; getting angry with the urchin or the cigar is quite simply imbecilic.”
Yet will he take his own advice when he finds out the marital status of Maria Eduarda, when it felt like it was “something very beautiful and lofty and resplendent having suddenly fallen and shattered in the mud, leaving him horribly splattered”?

Carlos may be partially progressing toward a maturity that he has so far lacked, yet he is like most of the moneyed class in Lisbon with his lack of accomplishments. The only achievements he can point to so far (in the book) is a college degree, his house refurbishments/decorations, and a couple of articles published. Listening to the upper class decry the low state of affairs in Portugal (the topic of the difficulty in finding good help at the Count’s dinner is just one hilarious example) while they do little to revive the state is both funny and pathetic. While there are limited examples of people trying to change things, most of the talk is empty rhetoric or bluster. Sousa Neto at the Count’s dinner is a prime example, showing his ignorance of literature even though he works in the Education Department. Not to mention his son is an undersecretary sent to St. Petersburg but doesn’t speak French, a decided handicap with Russia’s aristocracy.

(Sidenote: the wine references in the book definitely point out how well this class is living. Afonso gives six bottles of Ch. Margaux to Carlos’ first patient, while it isn’t uncommon to open a nice Chambertin or Champagne or Sauternes with dinner. Just a little detail, but helps illuminate that lifestyle.)

The idealism that is occasionally expressed is mixed with futility and defeat, helping explain the unbounded energy of many of the characters but the lack of focus in doing anything with it other than having affairs and living well. The feeling is that Portugal has peaked, its glory days with its colonies and importance in the world long past, while the slide into oblivion will have to be abated by someone else. Or somewhere else.

Lastly, two quotes that seem to underlie much of the action so far:

[Carlos] “The thing is, Craft, we never know whether what happens to us is, ultimately, good or bad.”

“Ordinarily speaking, it’s bad, said Craft tartly….”


[Dâmaso] “You know,” he said, “I have a feeling you’re going to turn out to be yet another scoundrel. One can’t trust anyone!”

[Carlos] “Everything in this world, Dâmaso, is mere appearance and deceit!”

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