Rules of the Game | The Nation


Rules of the Game

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Near the end of the book, when Carlos and Ega are growing tired of Lisbon's provincial entertainments, they take up Ega's old idea of founding "a journal that would shape literature, educate taste, elevate politics, create civilisation, and, in short, rejuvenate worm-eaten old Portugal." Filled with sudden energy and enthusiasm, they hole themselves up in Afonso's study to draw up a list of collaborators:

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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However, difficulties began to emerge at once. Ega disliked almost all the writers suggested because they lacked the artistic, Parnassian elegance of style of which he wanted the magazine to be an impeccable model. And Carlos thought certain men of letters quite simply "impossible," although without wishing to confess that what mainly repelled him was their lack of manners and their appalling clothes.

Frustrated, the gentlemen turn to their usual anodyne--a passionate discussion of the future offices' décor:

It would have to be luxuriously furnished, with sofas from Carlos's consulting rooms and a few antiques from the Toca [his country estate]; and above the door (adorned with a liveried doorman), would hang a highly polished black sign with The Portuguese Review in large gold letters. Carlos was smiling and rubbing his hands, thinking how pleased Maria Eduarda would be when she knew about this decision.... Ega, on the other hand, could already see the canary-colored magazine piled up in the windows of bookshops, discussed at the Count de Gouvarinho's soirées, leafed through with horror by politicians in the Chamber.

And so the practical matter of finding writers for this canary-colored masterpiece is lost amid the two men's fantasies. Ten years later, when they meet after a long separation, Ega recalls their youthful ambitions (to be a great scientist! to write a magnificent book!) and declares, "We have failed in life, my friend!"

Retail therapy is, in fact, one of the novel's leitmotifs. Like out-of-shape yuppies who buy mountaineering jackets designed for treks up Mount Everest, Eça de Queirós's characters regularly purchase objects as substitutes for endeavors that they cannot, or will not, undertake themselves. Thus, Carlos's top-of-the-line laboratory equipment replaces actual scientific research; Ega's Wildesque fur coat becomes a stopgap for membership in a real bohemian society. And the ultimate substitute is, of course, their circle's use of luxury goods as a replacement for a true reformation of Portuguese society--a situation that Eça de Queirós ridicules when Carlos's friend Dâmaso Salcede announces his belief in individual action:

"I believe that every person should contribute in some way to the civilisation of their country."
 "Well spoken, Senhor Salcede!" cried Afonso. "You have said a great and noble thing!"
 "It's true, isn't it?" declared Dâmaso triumphantly, bursting with pride. "I, for example..."
 "You?" came the cry from every side. "What have you done for civilisation?"
 "I've ordered a white frock-coat for the day of the races and I'll be wearing a blue veil on my hat!"

Ultimately, Carlos's moral failure is poignant, rather than merely comedic, because he is one of the few characters in The Maias to display real intelligence. During the few months he actually applies himself to his medical practice, he saves a woman from diphtheria and comes up with the idea for a sort of flu vaccine. So when Carlos moves to Paris after the death of his grandfather (and after losing Maria Eduarda, a stunning femme fatale), Portugal's hope for a First World future seems to leave town with him.

A friend of the family sums it up at Afonso's funeral: "You won't find people like those Maias now, my boys--lion-hearted, generous, valiant! Everything seems to be dying in this wretched country of ours!" Ega puts it more plainly: how will Portugal ever have the "personnel" it needs to catch up with the rest of Europe if he and Carlos, "who have all the right skills," do nothing but drive their dogcarts?

It's hard to tell how much Eça de Queirós subscribed to the belief that progress in Portugal needed to come from the upper class--he does the fly on the wall rather too well. Occasionally, his omniscient narrator will let loose an opinion or two--remarking, for example, that the "poison" of dilettantism had entered Carlos's blood--but mostly Eça de Queirós subordinates his narrator to his characters' perceptions. Instead, he relies on more subtle techniques like symbolism, juxtaposition, allegory and irony to communicate his own opinions.

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