Friday, 2 August 2019

Book Review: The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós

For a person who grew up in a family of long linage with a glorious past incorporated by adventurous and fearless ancestors whose deeds keep being recounted all across the country, it can be difficult to give life a direction that doesn’t fall short of their example. In The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós a young man who is exceedingly conscious and proud of his many legendary ancestors decides to go into politics because it will allow him to live at ease and to add his own to the country’s history at the same time. The trouble is that he has nothing except the name of his respectable family in his favour and needs to overcome his cowardice making himself known to the world. Thus, he begins to write a heroic novella about the brave men who started his family in the twelfth century…

José Maria de Eça de Queirós was born in Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal, in November 1845. During law studies in Coimbra he published poetry and later worked as journalist for a while. Besides, he collaborated with others on Correspondence of Fradique Mendes (Correspondência de Fradique Mendes: 1900) and The Mystery of the Sintra Road (O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra: 1870) released under his name, while working on The Relic (A Relíquia: 1887). The Crime of Father Amaro (O Crime do Padre Amaro: 1875) established him as novelist, but he continued as public servant contributing to periodicals alongside. His most famous novels Cousin Bazilio (O Primo Basílio: 1878), The Mandarin (O Mandarim: 1880) and The Maias (Os Maias: 1888) he wrote as diplomat in England before becoming consul-general in Paris. José Maria de Eça de Queirós died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, in August 1900, revising The Illustrious House of Ramires (A Ilustre Casa de Ramires: 1900) for the press. Unfinished The City and the Mountains (A Cidade e as Serras: 1901) and Alves & Co.  (Alves & Companhia: 1925; also published in English as The Yellow Sofa) appeared posthumously along with reprints of short stories, poetry, journalistic work and private correspondence.

Thirty years old and unmarried, Gonçalo Mendes Ramires is the last “Nobleman of the Tower” from The Illustrious House of Ramires, one of the oldest families of Portugal. By the late 1800s, however, the family’s glory is gone and the revenues from the Tower and another estate hardly permit Gonçalo the life-style that he enjoys and considers appropriate for a man of his station. His sister Gracinha is well provided for thanks to her marriage to a wealthy bourgeois, but he still worries about her because André Cavaleiro, their neighbour and brotherly friend of Gonçalo courted her for years leaving the girl desperate when he withdrew instead of proposed. Hurt in his family pride and trying to protect the virtue of his sister, whom he believes still in love with Cavaleiro, he even broke with his friend and blackens him whenever he can. Moreover, he envies his political career that already made him Civil Governor of the District and promises to promote him to Minister of the government. His other friends, too, are important men in local politics and administration, while Gonçalo has little to boast with except his lineage that he can trace back to the twelfth century. To improve his position and income he makes up his mind to go into politics as well and grudgingly reconciles with Cavaleiro for his support when unexpectedly the opportunity to be elected into Parliament arises, but he is uncertain of himself and convinced that he lacks the popularity to succeed. Having had some success with a novella during his studies, he sets out to make himself a name with a novella about his heroic ancestor Tructesindo Ramires that closely follows the lead of an epic poem published some fifty years earlier by an uncle and the example of Sir Walter Scott.

Written from the third-person perspective of an unconcerned as well as omniscient observer, The Illustrious House of Ramires draws the satirical portrait of a young nobleman who tries to enhance importance and reputation of his old family as well as of himself becoming a writer and a politician –mainly because he lacks willpower, energy and skill for other professional activity. A dreamer and a coward who likes to distort his “adventures” in his favour, he wants to write a heroic novella in celebration of his legendary twelfth-century ancestor whose chivalry and fearlessness he admires. Embedded in the chronological plot that shows the protagonist’s present life just before 1900, the five chapters of his historical novella mirror moods and events during the summer months up to his election into Parliament, a narrative structure that decades later Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago also used – slightly altered – in The History of the Siege of Lisbon (»»» read my review). Nostalgic of his family’s past splendour, the protagonist clearly stands for his country Portugal at the dawn of modern times. Saturated with impressive images and sometimes a bit lengthy by today’s tastes, language and style are typical of a realist novel of the time.

Altogether, I’m pleased to say that The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós turned out to be an engaging and entertaining read for me although I must confess that I struggled quite a bit with the original Portuguese not mastering the language as well as I would like to. It was the second novel from the pen of this remarkable nineteenth-century writer that I read… and I liked it just as much as (shorter) Cousin Bazilio (»»» read my review). It seems that English-speaking readers now get a chance to rediscover this Portuguese master of realist style (greater even than Gustave Flaubert according to Émile Zola and to me) because several new translations have been coming out these past years. As historical fiction that was contemporary at the time of its first release, his novels definitely deserve more attention and I gladly recommend this one.

Nota bene:
Since José Maria de Eça de Queirós died already in 1900, the original Portuguese editions of his work are in the public domain in Europe. The major part of the fiction can be downloaded legally and for free from Luso Livros, Project Gutenberg and similar sites. Probably, many of the early translations are no longer protected by copyright, either, but hardly any of them seem to have been digitised and made available online, so far.

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