Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Portugal: Don Quixote Meets Walter Mitty

The Illustrious House of Ramires by Eça de Queirós (1845-1900)

“A combination of Don Quixote and Walter Mitty,” remarks a reviewer for The London Spectator in describing the main character of the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós’ witty, ironic, often brilliantly modern novel, The Illustrious House of Ramires. Indeed our hero, Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, failed student, dilettante, idler, dreamer, coward, plagiarist, and inbred scion of the once-great House of Ramires, tilts at windmills every way he turns—and nearly always in a bumbling, affectionately human way. 

Set largely in and around The Tower of Santa Ireneia, the last remaining structure of the old Ramires estate in Portugal, Gonçalo or “‘The Nobleman of the Tower,” as he is commonly known, spends much of the story trying to write an Historical Novel called The Tower of Don Ramires, based on the heroic exploits of his Visigothic ancestors, in particular those of one Tructesindo Ramires, “standard-bearer of Sancho I.” He attempts this both as a means of ennobling himself as a man among the locals and as a way of improving his prospects as a politician—a largely egotistical dream of his that all but governs his waking hours. Also at the root of his efforts to memorialize his ancestors in prose is his reactionary desire to honor the ancient, much debased virtues of the great nation of Portugal itself with something “Portuguese alone, ours alone, blossoming from our soil and race!” As his friend and editor exclaims to him one day: “It’s a duty, a sacred duty… Portugal, my boy, is dying for lack of national sentiment! We are dying wretchedly of the evil of not being Portuguese!”

Richly tongue-in-cheek, The Illustrious House of Ramires is both a satire and a study of wit and style. It surprises one. While at first glance a fairly traditional novel, it is in fact a wryly self-conscious, decidedly experimental tale. As V.S. Pritchett puts it in his introduction: “…the book is a novel within a novel, a comedy of the relation of the unconscious with quotidian experience. One is tricked at first into thinking one is caught up in a rhetorical tale of chivalry a lá Walter Scott; then one changes one’s mind and treats its high-flown historical side as one of those Romances that addled the mind of Don Quixote…”

What I love about this novel is the way that de Queirós clearly revels in his own language, in the delight and fecundity of words. Here now, to end with, to help cast this novel’s spell, is the opening description of our hero, The Nobleman, Dom Gonçalo Ramires, at work in his study:

The library, a light and spacious room, with blue-washed walls and heavy blackwood bookshelves, where, amid the dust and grave leather bindings, lay thick volumes from convents and legal parchments, overlooked the orchard through two of its windows, one with a small balcony and stone seats with velvet-cushioned tops, the other, a broader one, with a veranda deliciously perfumed by the honeysuckle which entwined the railing.  It was in front of the brightness of this window that the table stood, an immense table with twisted legs, covered by a faded red damask cloth, and burdened this afternoon by the stiff volumes of The Genealogical History, the whole of Bluteau’s Vocabulary, and various volumes of Panorama, and in the corner a pile of Walter Scotts on which stood a glass full of yellow carnations. Form here, from his leather chair, Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, pensive before the sheets of foolscap paper and scratching his head with the duck-quill pen, could see the inspiration  his novel—the Tower. The ancient Tower, square and black against the lemon-trees of the orchard which grew around it, with a little ivy dressing the cleft corner, its deep loopholes barred with iron, its battlements and turret clearly silhouetted in the blue of the June sky…

 Jóse Maria Eça de Queirós was born in Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal in 1845. Over the course of his life he wrote twenty books, founded literary reviews, translated the work of fellow writers, and served as a diplomat in Havana, London, and Paris. Among his best known works are The Maias, The Crime of Father Amaro, The Yellow Sofa, and The City and the Mountains, each of which I recommend. He died in Paris in the year 1900 while serving as the Portuguese Consul-General and working as a journalist. (Thanks in part to New Directions). The Illustrious House of Ramires, published by New Directions, is translated by Anne Stevens.

Peter Adam Nash

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