Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Relic discussion: Chapters 1 – 2

The Relic follows the outrageous antics of Teodorico Raposo in the quest to inherit his aunt’s riches. His mother died shortly after he was born while his father died when Teodorico was seven. He is sent to live with his rigidly pious (yet gullible) aunt, who puts him through school and graduate school. It is when earning his secondary degree that he discovers the sensuous and carnal pleasure in life (after his first overly-harsh instructor died). Teodorico starts his double life, enjoying himself while in school but having to appear as pious as his aunt while staying with her in Lisbon. Once he graduates from school, he has more freedom to pursue his baser interests.

And he does enjoy those freedoms. The only thing he enjoys more than the company of women is engaging in conspicuous piety around his aunt. Of course that is only to get in her good graces as he realizes the church is his competitor for her estate. The aunt possesses a hair-trigger temper that is unleashed at any perceived slight or slip in manners or morals. She incessantly rummages through the belongings of her nephew and the help in order to ensure no loose morals exist in her household. Even with more freedom to have fun, Teodorico lives in fear since a slip-up would not only disinherit him but cost him his freedom as well. His attempts to cover his amorous tracks include burning love letters as well as incense (to mask the perfume of his lover). Shortly after discovering Adélia, his lover, is deceiving him, his aunt orders Teodorico to go as her surrogate to the Holy Land. Her one request, after threatening to put him out on the street if she hears that he chases after women or gives in to temptation, is to bring her “some holy relic from one of those holy places, a miraculous relic that I may keep, that I can cleave to in my sufferings and that will cure me of my ills.” Considering Teodorico only saw salvation in the “friendly, feminine lands, full of fun” that he would have to cross in order to reach the Holy Lands, his task appears easier said than done.

As the journey starts with the book’s second chapter, the tone changes from toungue-in-cheek comedy (where we laugh at Teodorico) to a multi-level farce where it becomes easier to identify with him. Queirós remains a fairly detached narrator, but his choice of language (or at least in translation) betrays a humanism beneath the neutral judgments. We follow Teodorico to Alexandria with his traveling companion, Dr. Topsius. The esteemed German doctor, undertaking research for his upcoming books The History of the Herods and The History of the Ptolemies, is a colorful companion despite lapsing into erudite babble (as well as using Teodorico’s toothbrush). Teodorico makes a beeline past the nearest church in order to find “a woman to love.” Thus begins a torrid affair with Mary, an English glovemaker. Upon leaving for Jerusalem, the first relic is obtained:
     Rummaging amongst the tangled sheets, he [Alpedrinha, Teodorico’s servant] had found a long lace nightdress, with pale silk ribbons. He shook it and it exhaled a nostalgic scent of violets and love. Ah, it was Mary’s nightdress, still warm from my caresses!

      ‘It belongs to Miss Mary! It’s yours, my love!’ I moaned, doing up my braces.

     My little glovemaker got up, tremulous, white-faced, and made a final poetic, passionate gesture. She rolled up the nightdress and thrust it into my arms as ardently as if her very heart lay amongst its folds.

      ‘I give it to you, Teodorico! Take it, Teodorico! It still bears the traces of our love. Take it and sleep with it by your side, as if you were sleeping with me. But wait, wait one moment, my love! I just want to write a little something, a dedication!’

     She ran to the table, on which lay scraps of the sensible notepaper I used when I wrote to my aunt, retelling the edifying story of my fasts in Alexandria, of nights spent immersed in the Gospels. Clasping the perfumed nightdress in my arms, feeling two sad tears roll into my beard, I looked anxiously around for somewhere to store that precious relic of love. The trunks were all closed. The canvas bag was full to bursting.

     …But my dearly beloved was already waving a piece of paper, covered in the words she had written, in a hand as generous, impetuous and frank as her love: ‘To my Teodorico, my brave little Portuguese lover, in memory of all the pleasures we enjoyed!’

      ‘But darling, where am I going to put this? I can’t carry it in my arms, naked and uncovered.’

      Alpedrinha was already on his knees, frantically unbuckling the bag. Then Maricoquinhas [Mary’s nickname] had a delicate but inspired idea, she grabbed a piece of brown paper, picked up a length of red ribbon from the floor and her skilful glovemaker’s hands quickly made of the nightdress a neat, round, graceful parcel which I put under my arm, clutching it to me with jealous, fiery passion.

Lovesick and probably seasick, Teodorico stays below deck on the sail to Jaffa and has a religious dream. In the dream, he walks through the Holy Land with Adélia and Mary. They are later joined by the Devil in time to witness a fantastic version of the Ascension. The Devil is distraught: "Consummatum est, my friend! Another god! Another religion! And this one will propagate in Heaven and Earth alike an unspeakable tedium.” The Devil expounds on the joy of pre-Christian religions and the worst aspects of the new religion:

      But then this carpenter from Galilee had appeared and all that was done for. The human face became for ever pale and full of suffering; a dark cross, weighing down upon the earth, withered the splendour of the roses, drained kisses of their sweetness; this new god took pleasure in ugliness.

      Thinking that Lucifer had grown sad, I tried to console him: ‘Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of pride and prostitution, plenty of blood and anger in the world! Don’t bemoan the holocausts of Moloch. There will be holocausts of Jews one day.’ Stunned, he replied: ‘Me worry? What do I care one way or the other, Raposo? They are transient, I am not.’

It is difficult to read this today without a jolt in the accurate prediction of a holocaust. Immediately after this speech, Teodorico’s aunt appears in his dream. He feels frightened at the sight of her, something notably absent in his talk with the Devil. Part of the horror underlying his reaction is the fear of losing his inheritance. But even more so, I believe, is Queirós allowing Teodorico to speak for the author’s distaste in the aunt’s type of Christianity and preference for a humanist approach full of appreciation in the beauty around us.

Teodorico continues to Jerusalem and is vastly underwhelmed by what he finds. At dinner he becomes infatuated with a fellow traveler, Ruby. In his visit to the tomb of Jesus (one of the few religious tasks he carries out for his aunt), he looks for Ruby in the crowds instead of being moved by the religious symbolism around him. Queirós adds to the farce by pointing out the market available for knickknacks and fake relics, such as a cigar holder made from the wood of Noah’s ark. Later that evening, as Teodorico tries to spy on Ruby bathing, her father catches him and provides a sound thrashing. The next night provides an attempt at “sensual revelry” that farcically goes awry. None of the dancers are worth the money provided until the last dancer appears on stage. She is too frightened to do anything, so Teodorico tries to comfort her. He murmurs sweet nothings to her, including “girls like you are well-treated there [Lisbon], given respect, they get written up in the newspapers, they marry landowners…”. Queirós’ tongue must have been firmly held in cheek when writing that, and after reading The Maias I recognize his disdain for both the decay and hypocrisy in his homeland.

On a trip to the Jordan River and near the ruins of Jericho, Teodorico happens upon a tree he thinks provided the thorns for Jesus’ mocking crown. He hits on the idea to take a branch home to his aunt as the relic he promised her, but fears it may be authentic and heal her ailments (and postpone his inheritance). Teodorico tracks down Topsius who provides double relief by noting that the tree could not have provided the crown of thorns but volunteers to vouch for its authenticity to his aunt. Queirós gets another dig in on the ubiquitous market for fake relics and sets up the ending:

      ’That’s a fine branch you’ve got there!’ he [Potte, their guide in the Holy Lands] shouted. ‘Would you like it made into a crown? That way it could serve as a relic.’

      And then, with extraordinary dexterity, the excellent man wove the rough branch into the shape of a holy crown. And it looked so touchingly like the real crown of thorns! … He delicately wrapped the crown up in it [wool], as if it were a fragile jewel, then with a sheet of brown paper and some scarlet string, he made it into a round package, light, neat and compact.

Teodorico celebrates with champagne and women, then “(f)eeling calm and happy, I too fell asleep.” All along the trip, it is interesting to see Teodorico’s reactions to events—his first reaction is usually to consider doing something pious, but he decides not to follow through on it. The pious reaction is so ingrained in him by his aunt, as is his revulsion at the religion that stands between him and an inheritance, causing the dual nature between intent and action to happen again and again. After reverentially wading in the river Jordan, Teodorico decides to bathe in “that bucolic bathtub amongst the trees” while dreaming of Adélia. Likewise his pride in shouting “No one guides me but Christ our Lord” is ironic at best since the setting for the declaration is in a whorehouse. This distinction between thought and action is highlighted during the trip to the river Jordan as Topsius tells the story of Salome and John the Baptist. John literally loses his head because of a woman, while Teodorico is constantly (figuratively) losing his for any pretty woman he sees.

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