A 19th-century Portuguese epic is finally put into readable modern English, revealing a strange tale of decline and fall.
Eça (1845–1900) was a liberal in conservative Portugal, a litterateur who spent much of his adult life in willing exile as a minor diplomat in France, Cuba and England, “that land of heretics and…barbarous language,” as the materfamilias of the da Maia family has it. The da Maias are wealthy and influential, recognized throughout the country guided by a patriarch of enlightened sentiment who despises his son’s attachment to a woman who, he thunders, “is the daughter of a murderer and a slave-trader.” With that schism, the family weakens, until finally its foremost member is a dilettantish doctor, Carlos da Maia, who, with his scampish friend Ega, chases around the capital looking for various pleasures while philosophizing, drinking and amounting to not much of anything. The two flâneurs are fond of gossip, rivalries, even feuds, and of twitting the bourgeoisie and flouting convention with talk of the “so-called Christ” and a future without vegetables, “merely a remnant of man’s coarse animality.” Lisbon, alas, is a small pond even for such small fish. Carlos withdraws into a passionate relationship with a woman who has a daughter and has spent some time in the company of men for pay. As it develops, that is the least of the scandals surrounding her. The entanglements are worthy of Jane Austen, though much seamier, and they point toward the beginnings of the decadent apathy that would soon turn into totalitarianism. Think of it as a Portuguese Buddenbrooks, with a foretaste or two of Doctor Zhivago—save that where Pasternak’s novel ends with its doctor hero running away from a trolley, Eça’s has its doctor hero chasing after one.
Slow-moving and elaborate, by modern tastes: but a founding work of modern Portuguese literature, hailed by José Saramago as a masterwork.