Friday, June 13, 2008

The Relic discussion: Chapters 4 – 5

The last two chapters return us to Teodorico’s waking life, following him home from the Holy Lands. After being carried back in time, Teodorico finds that he is indifferent and weary of the shrines and sights. The languor of soul is serious: “I did not even feel interested in the pretty Jewish girls” of Nazareth. This is not the libertine we have gotten to know! While he sometimes feels “a faint, delicious nostalgia for the remote past,” his real incentive now is to return home and worm his way into his aunt’s good graces (and of course, her will).

Teodorico takes great care in packing the many relics he has obtained, especially focusing on the crate holding the alleged crown of thorns (sealed with nails from Noah’s ark, of course). His companion, Topsius, settles Teodorico’s nerves regarding the claim that he has the crown of thorns. “The value of relics, Dom Raposo, lies not in their authenticity but in the faith that they inspire.” Unstated is that the faith lies in the holder’s belief that they are authentic. Contrasts between Teodorico’s actions and the historical nature of the Holy Lands abound, and his stay ends with one of the more ironical comparisons during his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead of retreating there to pray, he daydreams about his aunt’s death and spending his inheritance. With Eça there is little surprise with intended plot twists, so when Teodorico gives what he thinks is Mary’s nightdress to a woman as an act of charity, the reader can be pretty sure where this is headed. As he leaves Jaffa he is temporarily moved by a longing for the Holy Lands. But even though his plans are dashed when he finds out that Mary has run off with another man, we see our beloved Teodorico return to normal—he plans to defile a nun. He rationalizes this as true love, but seasickness quickly overtakes him and she is spared. Upon reaching Alexandria, he spends “the brief night in a street of delights. Go there, my compatriots, if you want to know the rough pleasures of the Orient.”

Upon returning to Lisbon, Teodorico feels a new respect from people who know about his trip. He feels he “could speak with equal authority at the Geographical Society and at Benta Bexigosa’s bawdyhouse.” The tales he tells his aunt and family friends about his holy journey are laughable in contrast to what he actually experienced. His hopes go higher as he learns of his aunt’s failing health. Eça plays up the unveiling of relics a little too much, but meanwhile Teodorico prays earnestly (for a change) about his aunt: “Oh holy Virgin Mary, let her die soon.” He even thinks he may have to resort to violence to hasten her end. But then the moment comes as expected:

      The final nail was removed from the final plank to reveal the white layer of cotton wool. With tender reverence I removed it and, before their ecstatic eyes, I lifted out the sacred package wrapped in brown paper and tied with red ribbon.

      “Oh, what a perfume! I feel quite faint!” sighed Auntie swooning with saintly pleasure, the whites of her eyes showing above the black lenses of her glasses.

      I stood up, flushed with pride: “Given her great virtue, it should be left to my aunt to unwrap the package.”

      Rousing herself from her languor, still tremulous and pale, but with the grave demeanour of a pontiff, Auntie took up the package, bowed to the saints, placed it on the altar and devoutly untied the knot in the red ribbon. Then with the solicitude of one who fears she might bruise a divine body, she undid the folds of brown paper one by one. A piece of white linen appeared. Auntie picked it up with the tips of her fingers, pulled it brusquely out and there on the altar amongst the saints, on the camellias, at the foot of the cross, lay the lace and ribbons of Mary’s nightdress!

      Yes, Mary’s nightdress, in all its glory and immodesty, still creased by my embraces, with ever fold redolent of sin! Mary’s nightdress! And pinned to it, clearly legible by the light of the candles, the note that went with the gift, written in large letters: “To my Teodorico, my brave little Portuguese lover, in memory of all the pleasures we enjoyed!” Signed “M.M.”

After being banished from the house, he discovers he had grabbed the trunk with the “minor relics” he had brought back for his friends. He realizes “The relics were money!”, but then that had always been his intent—to use them for inclusion in his aunt’s will. Teodorico is able to live extravagantly for a brief time by selling his relics (and manufacturing some new ones), but soon Portugal is swamped and the market dries up. His middleman earnestly complains to my delight: “It was you who ruined the business! The market’s overflowing. I can’t even sell one of Baby Jesus’ nappies, which always used to sell so well before.”

Teodorico’s aunt dies and he gets word that he is essentially disinherited. The church (or more accurately, several priests) get the bulk of her wealth. The reader can clearly see why the priests hung around the aunt’s house all those years, and it wasn’t just for spiritual guidance. After blaming religion for all his troubles, Teodorico has yet another dream. What appears to be Jesus, but ends up being Teodorico’s conscious, judges him and leads him to see his own hypocrisy—it’s narrated a little heavy-handed at times, but the transformation had to occur for Eça’s intended ending. The ironies pile up as he becomes a truthful man. He cuts his prayer off mid-sentence realizing he doesn’t believe in religion anymore. He ends up with a respectable career and a marriage with an amply dowried woman. He ends up buying the family house although everything he had originally hoped for ended up in the hands of a rapacious priest. But he now has an understanding of how things have happened, and how things could have been different if he had been even more audacious:

      Yes, when a sinful nightdress had appeared on the altar instead of a crown of thorns, I should have declared confidently:

      “There is the relic! I wanted to give you a surprise. It’s not the crown of thorns, it’s better than that! It’s the nightdress that belonged to May Magdalene. She gave it to me herself in the desert.” …

      And who would doubt it? … Aunt Patrocínio would have fallen upon my breast, calling me ‘her son and heir.’ And I would be rich! I would be beatified. My portrait would be hung in the sacristy of the cathedral. The Pope would telegraph me an apostolic blessing. …

      Thus would all my social ambitions have been satisfied. And show knows? Perhaps the intellectual ambitions I had caught from the learned Topsius would also have been satisfied. Because science, jealous of the triumph of faith, might well have claimed that nightdress belonging to Mary Magdalene for itself, as an archaeological document. It might well have illumined certain obscure points in the history of contemporary costume in the New Testament, the way nightdresses in Judaea were made in the first century, the industrial state of lacemaking in Syria under the Roman administration, the way the Semitic races did their hemming. …

      And I had lost it all. Why? Because for one moment, I lacked the ‘shameless heroism needed to tell a lie’, which, thanks to some universal illusion, is responsible for creating all sciences and all religions, whether it loudly strides the earth or merely lifts its eyes palely to Heaven.

Not much remains unscathed from the author’s finale. Eça seems to have no problem with the humanistic side of religion (or similarly the actual usefulness of academia) but decries what the institutions have developed into and how much they undermine the original intent of their existence. The last paragraph of the book harks back to the first dream Teodorico has of the devil lamenting the creation of yet another religion and the audacity it takes to found one.

The Relic combines comedy, romance, and satire in a bawdy picaresque tale. Even with all the spoilers in these posts, I highly recommend this unique work and author. It is a true pleasure to read and savor.

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