Eça de Queiros's superlative novel The Illustrious House of Ramires (originally published in 1900) is presented here in a sparkling new translation by Margaret Jull Costa. The favorite novel of many Eça de Queiros aficionados, this late masterpiece, wickedly funny and yet profoundly tender, centers on Gonçalo Ramires, heir to a family so aristocratic that it predates even the kings of Portugal. Gonçalo--charming but disastrously effete, idealistic but hopelessly weak--muddles through his pampered life, burdened by a grand ambition. He is determined to write a great historical novel based on the heroic deeds of his fierce medieval ancestors. But "the record of their valor," as The London Spectator remarked, "is ironically counterpointed by his own chicanery. A combination of Don Quixote and Walter Mitty, he is continually humiliated [but he] is at the same time kind hearted. Ironic comedy is the keynote of the novel .... Eça de Queiros has justly been compared with Flaubert and Stendhal" -- Verso title page.
Written in the very late 19th century the book centres around Goncalo Mendes Ramires the last descendant of perhaps the oldest and most noble family in Portugal living in and off the last relics of this once great family estates. Goncalo clings to many of the chivalric norms of the past but in reality is effete and his life aimless lacking any real influence. He is encouraged by an old university acquaintance to write a book describing his ancient forefathers bravery in an effort to be noticed in a country where patronage is still seen as important.However, when an untimely death occurs, Goncalo is given an opening into politics and perhaps real authority he abandons many of his previous scruples to grasp this opportunity culminating in a outbreak of violence with a local bully and piece of self-realisation. He is actually popular and well liked by his neighbours. Thus Goncalo comes to represent Portugal itself. A country which in many ways is living off its past with its colonies in Africa etc but although generally well liked has little real influence on the world stage. Personally I have no real experience of life in Portugal but feel that this analogy could also count for many of the old world empires, Britain, France, Spain, Italy etc.
I initially found the book rather dull and slow and some of the names a little difficult to get a handle on but it is worth persevering with. The prose is beautiful and there is a very subtle touch of irony running throughout. This is an author of real quality and I feel that he should be much more well read than he is. I will certainly keep an eye out for some of his other works.