Among the blurbs on the back cover is one from José Saramago, calling Eça de Queirós "Portugal's greatest novelist" and another from Alan Riding referring to him as "Portugal's Flaubert". High enough praise to prompt me to read THE CITY AND THE MOUNTAINS, reputedly one of Eça's three greatest works.
Eça de Queirós lived from 1845 to 1900. His relatively early death was due to tuberculosis. He was not only a writer, but also a Portuguese diplomat, who served in Cuba, Great Britain, and France.
On the superficial level of narrative, THE CITY AND THE MOUNTAINS is a sort of morality play. It also is the tale of a lifelong friendship between the narrator Zé Fernandes, a member of the Portuguese landed gentry who divides his time between Paris and his modest family estate in Portugal, and Jacinto, a fabulously wealthy Portuguese with a mansion on the Champs-Elysée and a place at the epicenter of Parisian social life. Zé Fernandes had met Jacinto at boarding school and in the novel he plays a sort of Sancho Panza to Jacinto's Don Quixote, as Jacinto flits from one enthusiasm to another (with intervening periods of complete and utter ennui). Most of the first half of the novel is set in Paris, and most of the second half in the mountains of Portugal, where Jacinto goes for the first time to re-inter the bones of his ancestors after the family cemetery was uncovered by a flood. In Paris, Jacinto had become bored and jaded. In the country, he is thoroughly re-invigorated.
Needless to say, THE CITY AND THE MOUNTAINS is not plot-driven. What distinguishes it - indeed, its raison d'être - is its satire of late 19th-Century civilization and its intellectual and technological achievements, especially as grandiloquently paraded in Paris. At the beginning of the novel, the satire is very light in tone, but gradually it takes on more and more venom so that by the end it has become full-blown mockery. There is much humor and acute observation of society, especially bourgeois pretensions and sycophancy.
There also is some bitter social commentary, the highpoint of which occurs when Zé Fernandes and Jacinto go to Montmarte, where the Basilica of Sacré Coeur is being constructed. They look down on Paris, the "City" of the title and the zenith of Civilization and Progress, and Zé Fernandes waxes philosophical. An excerpt:
"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."
Rather remarkable writing from a man who is reputed to have been somewhat of a dandy and a gourmet, but then THE CITY AND THE MOUNTAIN was written at the very end of Eça's life. In fact, he died before he had fully revised the proofs of the novel. All in all, I found THE CITY AND THE MOUNTAIN to contain some brilliant writing, especially when depicting the vacuity of bourgeois life in Paris, but ultimately the story is too heavy-handed and the breezy style eventually became wearisome. The novel is worth reading as an example of its time, but to my mind it is not a classic.