‘Os Maias’ (‘The Maias’) by Eça de Queirós

My rating: 5 stars

As the title suggests, Os Maias (The Maias in the translation into English) by Eça de Queirós focuses on the misadventures of the Maia family. However, this Portuguese classic, which I read for the first time around nineteen years ago, has much more to offer, since it’s also a superb portrayal of the vices of the higher classes in the 19th century and of the cultural discussions of the time. The ironic tone and some of the behaviours of the characters make this a recurring funny novel, despite it not lacking sadness as well.

The Maia family went to live at Ramalhete, a house at the Janelas Verdes neighbourhood in Lisbon, in the Autumn of 1875. Ramalhete had remained uninhabited for years, but now that Carlos was finishing his studies at the University of Coimbra, his grandfather Afonso wanted them to move there. They were the last two members of their family. Thanks to a valuable flashback, readers learn why.

When he was younger, Afonso da Maia, who was a supporter of liberalism, lived for a while in exile in the outskirts of London, as the absolutist King Miguel I had taken over the Portuguese throne. While he cherished living there, his wife struggled. Being surrounded by Protestants only made her Catholicism grow stronger. She started to hate everything that was English and sent for a priest from Lisbon to be responsible for their son’s education. The family ended up returning to Portugal when absolutism came to an end. The health of Afonso’s wife had been deteriorating, though, and, when she eventually died, their son, Pedro da Maia, was shaken by sadness and mourned her with intensity, behaving erratically.

Everything changed the day he met Maria Monforte and started courting her. His father didn’t accept their relationship. He didn’t want Pedro to marry her, because she was the daughter of a former slave trader. They ended up marrying in secret, though, and went to Italy. When they returned to Lisbon, Afonso left to the Douro region and remained there while they had two children, a girl and a boy, and threw various parties. Their relationship ended when Maria met an Italian man and left the country, taking with her the little girl. Pedro, as a result, went looking for his father, taking with him the boy. Afonso welcomed him with kindness, willing to forget their row, but Pedro committed suicide.

Afonso became responsible for the education of his grandson. He hired an English tutor who placed great importance on exercise, practical knowledge and the observance of rules. The local priest disagreed with these choices. He was convinced that he should be learning Latin instead, despite him being only a child then. Afonso had made his choice, though. A contrast is established between Carlos and Pedro’s upbringing. But will this be enough for Carlos not to make unfortunate mistakes?

Years later, Carlos was accepted at the University of Coimbra to study Medicine. There he meets João da Ega, who becomes his close friend. After graduating, Carlos went travelling around Europe. When he returned, he had plenty of goals – he wanted to open a laboratory and also a doctor’s surgery to see people for free. He was a dilettante, though.

Once at the peristyle of Hotel Central, Carlos saw a woman arriving with her husband and became enchanted. When he later learned that his acquaintance Dâmaso went to Sintra with her and her husband, Carlos invited his friend Cruges to go on a trip there. He fantasised about meeting her and going to Italy together. Nevertheless, he ended up returning to Lisbon without being introduced to the Castro Gomes family. Only later did he finally meet Maria Eduarda.

The book is not full of characters that we are supposed to always admire for their ideals and actions. Almost all of them have plenty of faults. Despite loving his grandfather, Carlos can be extremely selfish. Maria Eduarda is kind and cares for those less fortunate, but can seem haughty at times. Ega, the most impressive character, is hilarious and exuberant. His demeanour is vivid and his personality is portrayed with great skill. His opinions and actions make him a truly complex character, who is a product of his time. He loves shocking those around him, even if that means defending slavery or asking for a revolution. He doesn’t always truly believe what he is saying, however.

Being an example of the literary realism movement, The Maias features many criticisms of the vices of society, using for that various devices, including irony and diminutives. There are plenty of condemnations of the Portuguese economy, politicians and culture. It is mentioned, for example, how all ideas come from abroad and when someone decides to apply them it’s already too late and they are not even appropriate to solve the issues at hand. There are also conversations about how Romanticism is being replaced by Realism and naturalism in literature. While Alencar is appalled, Ega believes that the change needs to go even further. But he shows in various instances to also be a romantic at heart, not being immune to strong emotions.

The mentions of politics and of the cultural debates happening around Portugal (and sometimes in all Europe) at the time are all well integrated in the story via the engaging conversations between the characters and the occasional use of free indirect speech. They help give the book a sense of time, despite some insights being timeless.

“Os políticos hoje eram bonecos de engonços, que faziam gestos e tomavam atitudes, porque dois ou três financeiros por trás lhes puxavam pelos cordéis…”

“Current politicians were puppets, they made gestures and intervened, because two or three financiers at the back pulled them by the strings.” *

Though the novel mainly focuses on the higher classes, some of the characters seem to have an awareness of the difficult situations faced by the less fortunate. Alencar, for instance, wrote a poem about poverty and the need for the establishment of a Republic.

“Sim, a República! Não a do terror e a do ódio, mas a da mansidão e do amor. Aquela em que o milionário, sorrindo, abre os braços ao operário! Aquela que é aurora, consolação, refúgio, estrela mística e pomba.”

“Yes, the Republic! Not one of terror and hate, but one of gentleness and love. One where the millionaire, smiling, opens his arms to the worker! One that is dawn, balm, refuge, mystical star and dove.” *

The Maias is a long book, full of many descriptive moments and scenes that are not essential for the development of the plot, serving only to depict the 19th century society. The novel never becomes dull, nevertheless, in part thanks to the writing style. The dialogues between the characters are often amusing and their gestures are depicted in detail, being easy to visualise. Many objects and actions are often described through the use of adjectives that are actually features of the characters or the particular situations they are in. They assume the same feelings.

“Em volta, nas folhas das camélias, nas áleas areadas, refulgia, cor de ouro, o sol fino de Inverno. Por entre as conchas da cascata, o fio de água punha o seu choro lento.”

“Around, on the camellia leaves, on the sandy alleys, the fine winter sun shone, golden. Between the shells of the waterfall, the trickle of water began to slowly cry.” *

Classics can be intimidating. But Os Maias by Eça de Queirós is worth the effort at any age. It’s a book I will surely reread once again in the future.

 

* Although the translations of these quotes are my own, the book has been translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

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3 thoughts on “‘Os Maias’ (‘The Maias’) by Eça de Queirós

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    Loved the review, particularly as The Maias (I’m afraid I’ll be reading the English translation) has been waiting patiently on my shelves for at least four years! I must admit, it IS a bit intimidating, not just for its length but also for its complexity. But, hey — that’s your typical 19th century realistic novel, isn’t it? I also have a copy of de Queirós’ novella, The Yellow Sofa, and thought I might try it first, just to get some idea of this particular author. Any thoughts on this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susana says:

      I think I read The Yellow Sofa as part of a collection of short stories. I can’t remember anything about it to be honest, but the name sounds familiar. The Crime of Father Amaro is also really good. It’s a novel but is shorter than The Maias.
      I wrote an author spotlight about Eça de Queirós some years ago in case you’re interested: https://abagfullofstories.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/eca-de-queiros-the-19th-century-portuguese-master-of-social-commentary/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

        I just read your essay, which was a great over view of the writer and his works (and very helpful!). It’s definitely made me interested in reading one of the novels. At one time, I read lots of those big sprawling 19th century novels (mostly English writers, such as Trollope; also Henry James), which were written for a much more leisurely age and one without electronic diversions! At that time, I thought nothing of the time commitment and energy such works demanded. These days, however, I seem addicted to much shorter works! Still, Cousin Bazillio and/or The Sin of Father Amaro sound very tempting . . .

        Liked by 1 person

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