Almost all of the wonderful 19th century European literature that has come down to us depicts a bourgeois, or haute bourgeois, universe. This is certainly true of the great chronicle of a Lisbon family in decline, The Maias, by the late 19th-century Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eça de Queirós.
From a moral perspective, there is little to admire in the decadent and self-indulgent main character, Carlos de Maia, who wastes his talents and his family’s wealth on pursuing a number of dalliances, seems incapable of bringing any practical plan to fruition, and idles his way through the novel’s 600 pages.
Still, that’s not the point. What I loved about The Maias was de Queirós’s leisurely and ironic style and the effortless way he brings Lisbon and the nearby coastal town of Sintra to life.
The slow and inevitable caving in of a once great family is a poignant thing. We see it in Manila in all the time—think of the families you know, the dynasties that once controlled business empires, produced senators and presidents, now surviving on the rent from their one remaining property or on the kindness of relatives overseas. Of course it is in the nature of progress that families should rise and fall, and it is just as well that they do, but it would take a hard heart not to be moved by the frittering away, rather than the spectacular Bernie-Madoff-like collapse, that leads a once famous house down the road to obscurity.
Gathered around the somber main theme of The Maias are some wonderful and memorable characters: the blackguard Damaso, Carlos’s upstanding grandfather, Afonso de Maia, and his wastrel friend Ega; the mysterious Englishman, Craft; the aging poet Alencar … taken together, they bring to life a society that is in itself in a decline. Nineteenth century Lisbon is cosmopolitan, educated, and urbane, yet like the house of the Maias you sense it is going down, that Portugal’s great days are already in the past.
Perhaps I have made The Maias sound rather gloomy, but it isn’t really. The rather melodramatic plot, including its tragic, though rather prefigured, denouement, easily maintains the reader’s interest, as does de Queirós’s pitch-perfect understanding of the world he subtly satirizes. It is a melancholic book in a way, but then isn’t all great literature?