The City and the Mountains, José Maria de Eça de Queirós, t. Roy Campbell

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful hand which created it–the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Published in 1901, the year after Eça de Queirós’ death from tuberculosis, The City and the Mountains has a reputation as a masterpiece as Eça de Queirós that of “Portugal’s Flaubert” [1] and the Amazon product description says that the “novel is a hymn to country life,” which is true enough.

Jose (Ze) Fernandez, the narrator, is a landowner from rural Portugal who grew up and received his education in Paris where he met Jacinto, the scion of a particularly wealthy and powerful family. The first half of the novel takes place in Paris, the center of civilization. There, Jacinto is a sort of super-modern man with access to books and machines and comforts. For Jacinto, for one to be modern that person needs to devote himself to improvement, that is the collection or mastery of all things. Without these features, man is reduced to the position of an animal–just a stomach and a phallus, as he at one point says.

Ze Fernandez doesn’t have the same tolerance for city life as Jacinto and, after a temporary reprieve back home in Portugal, he finds himself distinctly uncomfortable in the city. He also begins to notice upon his return a change in his friend. Instead of achieving greatness within civilization, Jacinto is smothered by it. The novel takes a sudden turn at the midway point when Jacinto decides to return to his ancestral estate. Though he initially struggles in the transition away civilization to rustic simplicity, Jacinto becomes refreshed and energetic. Perhaps predictably, Jacinto finds himself happily married with children and Ze Fernandez concludes of Paris: “only two impulses seemed to live in that multitude, the love of pleasure and the love of gain.”

It is possible to consider Eça de Queirós’ vitriol against modern urban life, particularly against the unseen consequences of labor, the desire to avoid hardship, and the speed of life heavy handed (as the sole Amazon customer review does), but some of the heavy handedness is the result of the juxtaposition of the two settings. The radical change from one to the next is enhanced by Eça de Queirós’ rich descriptions of each place, but it is the change itself that establishes the contrast. Moreover, The City and the Mountains falls into the same literary family as other fin-de-siecle authors who explored the consequences of civilization and what happens inside and outside its bounds.[2] Eça de Queirós’ observations about the bourgeois mindset are as poignant and funny as his portrait of rural life is (mostly) unrealistically idyllic. Certainly, his commentary on modern man, so dependent upon seen and unseen labor, creature comforts that cause people to literally lose touch with reality,[3] and the constant sensory demands of civilized life should not be dismissed as a novelty of the fin-de-siecle. In many ways these concerns are more pressing than ever.

I should note that there are a few references to contemporary Portuguese issues such as the fear of an attempted coup by Dom Miguel, the son of the exiled king Joao (John) VI and himself king until the 1834. But the political issues are not central to the plot and only once or twice would knowledge of it have added an added layer of realism and/or satire to the novel.[4]

While The City and the Mountain is well worth a read, I would not recommend this translation. Roy Campbell’s translation came off stilted and choppy and, Zounds!, were the interjections unfortunate. I do not read Portuguese so it may be that Campbell was true to the original language at the expense of smoothing it into literary English. But here is a brief comparison with a new translation:

“From this terrace * * * we can see well the dismal rows of houses where the common people cower beneath that immemorial opprobrium from which neither religions, nor philosophies, nor morals, nor their own brutal violence can ever liberate them. There they lie scattered about the city like vile manure which fertilizes the City. Centuries roll by. The same dirty rags cover their bodies, and men will drudge and their women will weep and whimper for ever. How this labour of theirs edifies and enriches the city!”

(t. Roy Campbell)

“From this terrace, * * * we have a clear view of the dismal houses where the populace remains weighed down by that ancient opprobrium from which neither religions or philosophies or morality, nor their own brute strength, will ever be able to free them! There they lie, scattered about the City, like some kind of vile human manure. The centuries roll by, and the same immutable rags cover their bodies, and beneath those rags, through the long day, the men will labor and the women will weep. And the wealth of the City, dear Prince, is built on the labor and tears of the poor.”

(t. Margaret Jull Costa)

In this limited sample, the new translation is clearer English prose and is structured in such away that it encourages the reader to carry on rather than get bogged down.[5] Since I found this translation un-conducive to easy reading but enjoyed the novel anyway, I suggest trying the new version.

Next up is The Castle by Franz Kafka.

[1] So says an editorial review from Amazon.
[2] For instance, I saw loose similarities between Eça de Queirós and Joseph Conrad. Where one’s wilderness is bucolic, the other is wild and savage. Conrad’s Mr. Kurz is Eça de Queirós’ Jacinto without ancestral lands or obsession for toys.
[3] See also David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and the movie Wall-E.
[4] Ze Fernandez holds a party at which Jacinto receives a cool reception. Contextually their mistrust makes sense without knowing the historical situation, but knowledge of Portugal’s tumultuous political history in the 19th c. would have tied the book together a bit more neatly.
[5] This is a personal opinion and someone with a grasp of the original language may disagree about which translation is better. But read enough books in translation and you get a feel for which ones are poorly done.

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