Rules of the Game | The Nation


Rules of the Game

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Eça de Queirós's main target in The Maias is the insular, fashionable society that Portugal's upper class built amid the country's ruins, and its hero, Carlos da Maia, is a young aristocrat of exceptional looks, wealth and taste. Carlos arrives in Lisbon in 1875, fresh out of Coimbra's medical school, seasoned by a year of Grand Tour and itching "to do something really brilliant"--though he's not quite sure what. "For him, a man of study accustomed to luxury," Eça de Queirós explains, this brilliant accomplishment needed to involve "a mixture of social status and scientific work; a profound thinking of ideas carried out in the exquisite shelter provided by great wealth."

About the Author

Marcela Valdes
Marcela Valdes, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, last wrote for The Nation about Alejandro Zambra.

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Carlos's buddy Ega rides into Lisbon with similarly vague, contradictory ambitions. A lawyer by reluctant training, he wants to write a novel called Memoirs of an Atom. No, he wants to start a Portuguese version of the Revue des deux mondes. No, he wants to win the prettiest mistress in Lisbon. What both friends do with most success, however, is banter, order clothes and arrange interior décor.

With the help of an "architect-cum-decorator" from London, Carlos transforms dusty old Casa do Ramalhete into a stylish bachelor pad, complete with a billiards room, a music room, a smoking room and a card room ruled by his doting grandfather Afonso. His medical office is just as posh: morocco leather benches, "albums filled with photographs of half-naked actresses" and a piano, to help his nonexistent patients forget their aches.

If you're hearing overtones of A Sentimental Education in this précis, you're not far off the mark. Gustave Flaubert, Costa tells us in her afterword, was Eça de Queirós's "literary hero," and it's obvious that The Maias owes Flaubert's 1869 Bildungsroman a debt. Like it, The Maias mocks the dissipation of youthful promise in love affairs and fashion. Indeed, one of its most amusing scenes occurs when Carlos visits Ega's home, the Villa Balzac, just outside Lisbon. Ega has chosen this location ostensibly so he can concentrate on completing Memoirs of an Atom but actually so that he can conduct a clandestine affair. Surveying his buddy's messy bedroom, which is cluttered with books, champagne glasses, hairpins, shirts and a huge box of face powder, Carlos inquires, "And where do you work, Ega, where do you produce your great art?"

"There," Ega responds saucily, pointing in the direction of his enormous scarlet bed.

In A Sentimental Education, the shirts and the face powder would have been native to Paris; in The Maias, they're more likely to be imported. Eça de Queirós was keenly aware of this difference, which meant that the fashions widely available in Paris were, in Portugal, the exclusive province of the rich. "Civilisation comes at a very high price," Ega jokes. "What with the customs duties one has to pay, and, besides, it's second-hand, it wasn't made for us, and so it's all a bit short in the sleeve."

Nowhere is this poor tailoring clearer than when Lisbon's aristocrats decide to hold a horse race; though, as Afonso observes, it would have been more patriotic for them "to put on a good bullfight." The ersatz event is a fiasco. The ramshackle hippodrome fills with "suffocating dust." The women dress in black instead of cheery checks and stripes. The jockeys brawl over the referee's calls. "It's all pretty dire," one man in attendance observes. "For heaven's sake if you're going to have a proper horse-race you need cocottes and champagne, not grim faces and cold water, it just won't work."

The problem, of course, is that the horse race requires participation from members outside Carlos's circle. Lisbon's upper class can import suits and songs and magazines, but their snobbery, combined with Portugal's general poverty, prevents them from re-creating anything like the democratic, industrialized cultures they admire from afar. Unlike Flaubert's Sentimental hero, Frédéric Moreau, for example, Carlos socializes almost exclusively with aristocrats and gentry--that is, with people who have no need to work. And his last chance to accomplish something worthwhile founders on his reluctance to swim outside this clique.

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