Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of José Maria Eça de Queirós’s The Maias: Episodes from Romantic Life has been hailed by such literary critics as Harold Bloom as infinitely more readable than the other versions of this nineteenth century Portuguese masterpiece available in English. They agree that it will no doubt become the standard translation.
Set in Lisbon at the close of the nineteenth century, The Maias can be viewed as a classic bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Carlos da Maia, the novel’s young hero and the heir to one of Portugal’s greatest fortunes, has been living a petty, idle life of parties, fine wine, and romantic intrigue. Suddenly, he is forced to learn that all the money in the world cannot buy happiness and to accept the fact that actions have consequences, even though it might take generations for the results of irresponsible conduct to come to light.
Carlos grows up under the tutelage of his illustrious, highly principled and loving grandfather, Alfonso da Maia, after his father Pedro da Maia commits suicide in “romantic” desperation upon the departure of his beautiful and mysterious wife, Maria Monforte, with a man simply called the Italian. Maria takes with her Carlos’s sister, Maria Eduarda, whom she favors, but leaves Carlos behind in the care of his father. Knowing full well the horrific family drama, and in time coming to learn that his sister has died, Carlos grows up and flourishes at the hands of his attentive grandfather, who takes solace in his grandson as the youngster grows in kindness and character.
Although he is heir to one of Portugal’s largest family fortunes, Carlos applies himself to his education and decides on a career in medicine to help his fellow human beings. However, despite his high intelligence and his well-meaning plans, after his return from the University of Coimbra to Lisbon, he soon falls into the opulent lifestyle of the city’s upper crust. Sleeping until all hours, dressing luxuriously, lunching for hours, dining and drinking well into the night, attending the theater, and conducting casual sexual rendezvous in carriages with the wives of the local nobility take up all his time. He never gets around to establishing a list of patients, not to mention writing medical treatises or helping his fellow man. His offices in time become merely well-decorated meeting places for his long list of dandified acquaintances.
Chief among these friends is João da Ega, who, after being cast aside by the love of his life, spends most of his time at the Maias’ richly decorated compound known as Ramalhete in the neighborhood of Janelas Verdes on the outskirts of Lisbon. Another friend, Dámaso Salcede, uses women for social gain. When these young, fashionable men tire of women, they coldly cast them aside and get angry when the women make a scene or have the effrontery to tell them they love them. Despite numerous affairs, Carlos has never been in love and looks askance at men who feel passion and devotion. However, this is shortly to change.
Meanwhile, Carlos’s grandfather feels deeply disappointed by his grandson’s behavior but remains patiently waiting in the family dwelling, in Olivas, for his sole heir to put aside childish things and grow up. Although he may not be ready, life will soon hit Carlos da Maia over the head and he will fall down hard.
The main plot of the novel begins one night when Carlos spies a beautiful, sophisticated-looking woman who, his pompous friend Dámaso tells him, is Maria Gomez, newly arrived from Brazil with her husband, Castro Gomez, and young daughter, Rosa. The boastful Dámaso...
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promises Carlos an introduction but fails to deliver. When Carlos is called to attend the Gomez family’s governess, Miss Sarah, Maria and Carlos instantly connect and begin an affair after the husband returns to Brazil. Carlos buys an idyllic summer home in the forest, and Maria and Rosa move in. The couple are ecstatically happy and plan to run away togetherthat is, until Castro returns and informs Carlos that Maria is merely his mistress, not his wife, and that, in fact, she was earlier the mistress of another man named MacGren. Carlos is deeply angry and swears to have nothing to do with Maria until he hears the story of Maria’s wretched life.
Earlier, in Brazil, young Maria had sunk into poverty in the company of her mother, who had led a fast life of luxury with a variety of men until her good looks and health failed her. Literally left with nothing to eat, Maria is forced to live with an Irish military man named MacGren, to whom she becomes engaged. She gives birth to Rosa before MacGren can marry her, and he dies in action, leaving her penniless. Forced then to take up with Castro Gomez, she pretends to be his wife to make social encounters easier. Carlos is deeply saddened by Maria’s story, and, after his anger disappears, he asks her to marry him. The happy couple plan to leave Portugal permanently, but Carlos is troubled by how this decision will affect his grandfather. Soon, critical remarks about Maria begin to appear in the local gossip newspapers, and Carlos is forced to confront his jealous former friend Dámaso for planting the salacious items. A duel is proposed, but Ega manages to negotiate for a written retraction instead. Dámaso must explain in writing that when he made the accusations against Maria he was drunk and, furthermore, that he comes from a family of drunks.
One evening, with Ega in tow, Carlos attends the theater to hear a friend’s vocal performance and here meets Dámaso’s uncle, who has taken offense at his nephew’s written remarks about his drunken family. Ega manages to soothe the uncle, and soon they begin a friendly conversation about the da Maia family. At the end of the evening, Dámaso’s uncle, who heartily dislikes his nephew, asks Ega to return a box of papers given to him years before by Carlos’s mother. He mentions to Ega that he is making this request because he had seen young Maria and her brother in a carriage and that he was glad the two were finally reconciled. At first, Ega is puzzled. Then the dreadful truth dawns on him.
After checking that the older man could not possibly be mistaken about the identities of those involved, Ega is forced to accept the fact that his best friend has unknowingly been having an incestuous affair with his own sister. He ponders how to tell Carlos without having him commit suicide like his father. Finally, Ega confides in Vilaca, the Maias’ financial administrator, and both men approach Carlos with the news and the evidential box of papers that includes a note verifying the truth from Carlos and Maria’s own mother.
Carlos is beyond despair. At first he attempts never to see Maria, the sister whom he believed to be dead. However, he gives in to his passion and sleeps with her, knowing full well that she is his sister. Worse still is the realization that his grandfather knows the truth. Carlos is devastated after his deeply saddened grandfather is found dead in the garden. After a while, Maria is made aware of the truth, and it is shefar wealthier now since she is entitled to half the da Maia estatewho takes matters into her own hands by returning to Brazil with her daughter. Carlos and Ega and friends begin an extended journey around the world.
It takes an aging Carlos ten years to find the courage to return to Lisbon, the site of all his youthful troubles. He is worn out with traveling and finally acknowledges that all he wants is peace.
At the end of the novel, in the year 1887, the world of horse-drawn carriages is dying out and the twentieth century is burgeoning. Despite their unlimited opportunities, neither Carlos nor Ega have fulfilled their youthful ambitions. Ega has not become a famous writer or literary critic; Carlos has wasted his medical education. He no longer treats patients and has even failed to write his promised medical treatise. As the now middle-aged friends ponder the past, a tram passes, and the men run frantically, hoping they might still catch it. The reader is left wondering whether Carlos and Ega will be able to catch up, not only to the modern-world tram but also with their lives. Will they grab the only chance they have left, or will they fail yet again and remain stuck in the regret of what might have been?
In his comprehensive portrayal of nineteenth century Portuguese politics and social history, Eça de Queirós, Portugal’s greatest nineteenth century novelist, was influenced by both naturalism and Romanticism. The author, who sought to bring about social reform through writing literature, utilizes satire and an air of detached irony to dissect, layer upon decadent layer, the social strata of his day by brilliantly evoking, and simultaneously condemning, slow-to-change Portuguese society.
Thematically, The Maias deals with regret, not just in the sense of Carlos’s impossible love for his sister but also over the fact that Portugal, once a great imperial power, has declined in glory in the eyes of the world. Gradually undermined by duplicity, complacency, and sexual license, the Maia fortune has continued to diminish over three generations. Similarly, Portugal has, as Eça de Queirós would argue, sunk from grandeur into scarcity.
Overall, the novel illustrates the debauched lifestyle of the well-to-do in nineteenth century Portugal. It criticizes the decadent manner of living that did not confine itself solely to Portugal but spread insidiously throughout most of Europe and culminated in the rise of totalitarianism, both world wars, and the emergence, in this case, of Portugal’s fascist dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970).
Footnotes to help decipher the Portuguese history and cultural references would have proved helpful. Otherwise, readers might benefit from reading a brief overview of nineteenth century Portuguese history before beginning the novel.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 9 (May 1, 2007): 410.
Library Journal 132, no. 13 (August 1, 2007): 66.
London Review of Books 30, no. 1 (January 3, 2008): 13-14.
The Nation 285, no. 18 (December 3, 2007): 23-28.
The New York Times Book Review 156 (September 2, 2007): 6.