‘A Capital’ (‘To the Capital’) by Eça de Queirós

My rating: 3 stars

Symbolic characters are an integral part of the novels written by Eça de Queirós. In A Capital, To the Capital in the English translation, the Portuguese author used them to criticise the high society of Lisbon from the 19th century. Although the book features a couple of great moments of irony and social commentary, I was never fully enthralled by the ordeals of the main character, Artur Corvelo, which were to an extent self-inflicted.

At the beginning of the novel, 23-year-old Artur is at the train station in Ovar, the town where he grew up, looking for his grandfather, who was supposed to be on its way to Lisbon. He didn’t find him, though. Then the narrator goes back in time, and we learn what happened in Artur’s life up until that moment. His parents had sent him to Coimbra to attend university. While there he spent most of his time engaged in philosophical and literary discussions. After the death of his parents, he lacked the financial means to continue his studies.

He left Coimbra and moved to the house of his aunts in Oliveira de Azeméis. But he quickly grew bored. He missed the conversations that he had with his friends and lacked the inspiration to write poems as he used to do. Life there was tedious. While his desire was to become a poet, he ended up accepting a job at a pharmacy in order to earn some money. He didn’t give up on his dream, though. He showed some of his work to Rabecaz, whom had lived in Lisbon. He believed that Artur should go live in the capital, since he would certainly achieve notoriety there.

Artur’s interest in Lisbon only increased when he saw a woman wearing a chess-patterned dress on the train heading there while he was looking for his godfather at the station. Rabecaz convinced him that he had to write a play to earn enough money to fully experience life in Lisbon. Working for a newspaper or writing poetry wouldn’t be sufficient. Artur could already see himself meeting the woman of his dreams during one of the performances of his future play. But he didn’t have money to move there.

When he was close to desperation, Artur received the news that his godfather had died and had bequeathed him a considerable sum of money. He didn’t wait too long to take the train to the capital! Was life in Lisbon going to be all he had hoped for?

Eça tended to used symbolic characters in his novels to criticise certain aspects of society. While in other books that I’ve read by him such characters still feel authentic, in A Capital the only one that is fleshed out is Artur. The others are hardly more than caricatures. Our main character is a dreamer and a romantic whose actions were full of contradictions. He started to despise people from high society but still wanted to be respected and have his work appreciated by them. He seemed to only care about poor people because it made him feel good about himself. Moreover, he was easily influenced by others to pursue a path that he wasn’t certain about.

Although Artur feels realistic, his story never fully grabbed me. The novel is excessively slow-paced from the beginning. The second chapter is an improvement on the first, as there is a more noticeable focus on characterisation and the plot is more substantially developed. However, what happened after Artur moved to Lisbon is not engrossing enough to be explored in a full-length novel. The mentions to the debates of the time (republicanism, the virtues of the French Revolution, positivism versus religion and various literary movements) didn’t add much to the story either.

This is my least favourite novel by Eça de Queirós. The struggle of the main character to understand what should be valued in life wasn’t enough to fully enthral me. Despite some good moments, the majority of the book is not particularly enthusing.

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