Review: The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós 

The City and the Mountains [1901/2008] – ★★★★★

“…and in life, only the soul matters” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 174].

Eça de Queiroz’s novels The Maias [1888] and The Crime of Father Amaro [1875] are among my favourite books of all time. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, The City and the Mountains is de Queiroz’s much later novel about the life of Portuguese nobleman Jacinto de Tormes as told from the perspective of his best friend Zé Fernandes. The novel starts in Paris, France (the City) and ends in Tormes, Portugal (the Mountains), presenting a vivid contrast between the busy, money and technology-driven Parisian lifestyle, on the one hand, and the quiet, simple, filled with natural beauty, mode of life in the countryside, on the other. As important as this duality is the psychology of Jacinto de Tormes, a man of great means and even bigger opportunities. However, it turns out that it is not so easy to figure out the purpose of a thing called Life and the quest for ultimate knowledge may not lie in the most obvious of places. Thus, this charming book on duality and human transformation is many things: a delicate city satire, a study of fin de siècle societal eccentricities, a heart-warming presentation of lifelong friendship, and, finally, a lyrical tribute to the beauty of Portuguese countryside.

My friend Jacinto was born in a palace, with an annual income of one hundred and nine contos in rents from the vineyards, grain, cork trees and olive groves planted on his lands” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 13], the story begins. Zé Fernandes (the narrator) met Jacinto when both were still boys studying in one posh school-for-boys in Paris. Zé Fernandes’s fascination with his friend has grown over the years and his personal account is as much a tale of this close friendship as means to try to figure out this extraordinary person that is Jacinto, a likeable, bright, happy-go-lucky man whom the narrator calls my “supercivilised Prince”. Born into a very rich and aristocratic family of landowners, Jacinto has grown up to be the very definition of a modern man, living on the most prestigious street in Paris (Champs-Elysees, No. 202), and surrounded by the best and most interesting Parisian society, hundreds of commitments and things to do, the latest technological gadgets and thousands upon thousands of books on every topic under the sun.

There is a satire on the emerging technological progress of the nineteenth century. While advances in central heating and telegraph modifications are undoubtedly useful and “facilitate Life”, the sheer relentless technological inventiveness and the proliferation of various devices (the Phonograph, the Radiometer, the Graphohone, the Electric Press, etc.) may have the opposite effect of complicating life and overwhelming the user. It does not help that these machines often break down, too. Thus, Jacinto, a firm believer in the scientific progress and productivity, have various gadgets in his home in Paris to “confirm [his] dominion over Substance” and attest to his “battle against Force and Matter”. Having a choice of what bottled water to drink at home: oxygenated water, carbonated water, phosphate water, sterilised water, soda water, etc. is just one of the perks of being rich and following the latest developments in science and knowledge.

Eça de Queiroz skillfully shows just how frantic and meaningless life can become, when, infected by that joie de vivre, one jumps from one interest or one philosophy to another with an alarming speed, following all the recent sensible and not-so-sensible published scientific guidance and gossip. Soon, the disillusionment sets in. The Parisian society is described as filled with self-centered, money-grabbing people who view others only as their competitors or objects that can give them momentary pleasure, and the upper class in particular is presented as the one where intellectual curiosity is never quenched, and where, sooner or later, either boredom or spiritual loneliness makes itself known: “The City has its most deleterious effects on Man’s Intelligence, which it either imprisons in banality or drives into wild extravagance” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 87]. It is in this stifling atmosphere of abundant choice, leisure and luxury, but also paradoxical emptiness that Jacinto finds himself. There is no proper adventure when there is “an” adventure around every corner, and “the more you know, the more you suffer”. Besides, the social divide is just around the corner and cannot be ignored: “Only a narrow, lustrous caste enjoys the special pleasures the City can provide. The others, the vast, dark populace find only the pain and suffering peculiar to the City…the wealth of the City…is built on the labour and tears of the poor [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 88].

When Jacinto later comes to his countryside estate in Tormes, Portugal, he experiences an overwhelming contrast. The countryside is covered with green meadows and every variety of flower and tree, from sweet-smelling orange trees, mimosa trees and magnolias to maize, pine woods and ancient oak trees, as well as filled with creeks and streams, with “fine, pure air entering the soul and spreading joy and strength” [1901/2008: 134]. There is oneness with nature felt, as well as the sense of interconnectivity of everything. The people are also different. Crudely put, the country people’s appearances may be “drab”, but their essence is gold, whereas in the city, the appearances seem gold, but the people’s essence is “drab”. Jacinto is a man torn between two contrasting places, two conflicting lifestyles and two different life philosophies. Where is real Life to be found, then? Can its answers be found by following the technological progress, philosophical debates in upscale cafés and by reading hundreds of books, or in rustic simplicity, in quiet contemplation of Nature itself?

The novel was published after the author’s death and the book’s last page was found missing. That meant that Eça de Queiroz’s close friend, Ramalho Ortigão, supplied the novel’s ending. Though critics called the novel “sentimental”, it can rather be termed as “idyllic” and “spirited”. The following comparisons are not altogether kind, but the novel’s unpretentiousness, simplicity and barely perceivable drama remind of the best works John Williams (Stoner [1965]) and Willa Cather (Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927]), American authors who were capable of handling drama quietly, elegantly, without pompousness or hurry. There are no Balzacian bombshells in The City and the Mountains nor is there Dickens’s tightening of a narrative grip. Eça de Queiroz’s novel has this enviable quality of being observant, but also light and sweet.

The City and the Mountains is as gentle as a summer’s breeze. The story can be viewed as too simple, undemanding and romantic, but there is still no denying that this is clearly a book with a soul – and that is one of the highest praises any book can hope to receive.  

8 thoughts on “Review: The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós 

  1. Wow Diana this is one of your best posts ever. Thank you for introducing us to these authors I’d never heard of. The only Portuguese author I’ve read is Pessoa, I wonder if these writers were an influence.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, and for your support as well. I appreciate it immensely. I read some poems by Pessoa, but I would love to read more of his work. Other Portuguese author I infinitely admire is Jose Saramago. I admit not to everyone’s taste, but his book The Cave is one of my all time favourites.

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  2. So glad to see such a lovely review of a great Portuguese author on your blog, Diana! Eça de Queiroz is such a treasure. Will you be sharing your thoughts on “The Maias” in a post anytime soon, since you love it so much?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Two writers I have been a fan of for a long time are José Saramago and Antonio Tabucchi (who was actually Italian, but lived in and wrote about Portugal), and am always on the lookout for more Portuguese writers. This is an author that I keep hearing wonderful things about, though his books aren’t that easy to find I’m still on the lookout!

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