Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tragedy of the Street of Flowers






















Eça de Queirós circa 1882


I've just finished reading a novel by an author who is considered to be Portugal's greatest 19th century novelist, Eça de Queirós ( 1845 - 1900) author of 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers'.

'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' is a novel written circa 1875 but which has only come to light recently. Found amongst the deceased author's paper's in 1900, it was not published in Portugal until 1980 when the copyright of Queirós' writings expired. It was translated into English in 2000, a full century since the author's death. Queirós himself stated in 1877 of his novel -

'It's not immoral or indecent. It's cruel..the best, most interesting novel I have yet written... a real literary and moral bombshell'.

Before reviewing this novel a word of praise must be said for the role of translator. Where would we lovers of the novel, in the Babel-like din of World literature be without them ? A good translator can introduce new literature, transforming the reader's understanding of historical, cultural and social conditions throughout the world. They can even cast fresh light upon the inner dialogue and moral dilemmas of well-loved and enduring characters of World literature.

Without having to dedicate the formative years of one's life to mastering several languages to become a polyglot, the classics of European literature would remain a closed book were it not for the translator. From the Icelandic Sagas of the Dark Ages, to the grandfather of all European novels, Cervantes 'Don Quixote', to the psychological analysis of memory by Marcel Proust in his novel of recollections, to Mikhail Bulgakov's surreal satire upon Stalinist totalitarianism, 'The Master and Margarita', homage must be paid to the translator for their devotion of many hours, re-shaping the written word from one language to another. One grows fonder of the translator's skills with the passing of time, placing trust in recognised names for their meticulous precision, inspired insight and often sheer drudgery, to open windows to new works of world literature to the questing reader.

The winner of several awards for her translations, Margaret Jull Costa has breathed new life into Quiroz's novels, translating his witty dialogue and observations on Lisbon society with panache. Together the innovative publishing-house of Dedalus, along with Costa's modern translation and Eça de Queirós' prose combine to make 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' a cracking good read, whether one is familiar with the aesthetics of the 19th century European novel or not. And although it has been called an unfinished or incomplete novel, 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' assuredly does have a full and satisfactory ending.

The story of 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' begins at a theatre in Lisbon with the appearance of Genoveva, a sophisticated and stunningly beautiful woman just arrived in Lisbon from Paris. The young law graduate Vitor da Silva falls in love with her at first sight and becomes a bitter rival to her present lover, Vitor's one-time friend, a wealthy Portuguese dandy named Damasco .

However Genoveva is in reality none other than a Parisian courtesan or high-class prostitute. Throughout the novel her cunning, true to her femme fatale nature, outwits and exploits both Vitor and Damasco, pitting them against each other, exploiting their generosity and lust for her.

In essence the novel concerns itself not only with the struggles and delusions of Vitor and his love for Genoveva but also with Portuguese society at large in Queirós' critical observation of the conceits, shallowness and prejudices of Lisbon society. This is apparent early in the novel when Genoveva throws a evening soiree. The party allows Queirós to parade before the reader an extraordinary gallery of characters from Lisbon society. It's here in the novel that the influence of the founder of the novel of social realism, Honore de Balzac, (1799-1850) author of a vast cycle of over 100 novels which depict the whole spectrum of Parisian society can be detected. Balzac's influence hovers over Queirós' own portrait of the faults, delusions and weaknesses of Portuguese society.

The main protagonist, Vitor reads Romantic authors such as Byron and Tennyson .His feelings throughout the novel, change as often as the wind. Vitor is the orphaned ward of a retired Judge, his Uncle Timoteo to whom his upbringing and care is entrusted.

The wooden-legged Uncle Timeteo is a strong and memorable character in the novel. He served in India where he lost a leg in a tiger-hunt. Extremely wise to the ways of the world, he reads The Times newspaper daily and is, like his creator, an Anglophile and mouth-piece for Queirós' own love of England. Queirós was that most rare bird by today's standards, a European Anglophile, who lived in Newcastle and Bristol as a diplomat for nearly twenty years.

In an era in which much of the world, often quite rightly, perceives English culture, society, and economics as not entirely salubrious, it's refreshing to be reminded of a time long ago when the English were admired, even if those actions are now defined as self-serving Imperial colonialism. Uncle Timon enthusiastically exclaims to Vitor-

'Do you know, Sir, what they've achieved in India? They created everything! Cities, railways, bridges, docks, navigable rivers, plantations. Before, when there was famine in India, they would die in their millions! And now they never lack for rice because the Englishman is there to give it to them'.

Without wanting to post spoilers, early in the novel Uncle Timoteo and Genoveva cross swords when Genoveva, mounted upon a horse, kicks a small child to one side in front of the elderly and honourable Uncle Timoteo. He immediately challenges her to a duel before shuffling to the novel's background when, at the story's denouement, he pieces together the shock Oedipal revelation which tragically affects Vitor's and Genoveva's love-affair.

Other notable characters in a novel full of original characters include the artist Camilo Cerrao, commissioned to paint a portrait of Genoveva, but forever theorizing and changing his mind upon the style, function and nature of art so much that little real painting is ever accomplished. Like much great art a strong vein of both comedy and tragedy runs throughout 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers.'

The French novelist Emile Zola claimed that Queirós was a greater writer than Flaubert, (well he would, wouldn't he)! And although Queirós has been compared to realist novelists such as Balzac, Zola and even Proust he is, as a reading of 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' confirms, no mere pastiche of these 19th century Realist novelists, but an original voice of European literature in his own right. Queirós' greatest masterpiece is however considered to be 'The Maias' of 1888. It too engages in satirical observations upon the social pretensions of 19th century Portuguese society, specifically Lisbon society. I'm looking forward to reading 'The Maias' soon!
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