The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Margaret Jull Costa’s new translation from the Portuguese of Eça De Queiros’ The Illustrious House of Ramires, first published in 1900, is a delicate and humorous translation which holds the power to make even the cynical twenty-first century reader chuckle. Its anti-hero protagonist, Gonçalo Mendas Ramires, also referred to throughout as “The Nobleman of the Tower,” holds his familial lineage, talents, and self-worth, in the highest regards. His lack of self-awareness and assurance of his own nobility, combined with his natural inability to accomplish almost nothing, provide for a delectable read. Costa’s re-translation highlights her translating powers to both preserve and portray a world that has been left behind by the end of the nineteenth century, whilst highlighting a kind of humor and irony that some might claim to be the definite marker of the cynical twenty-first century.
“Few lineages, even those dating from the same period, could trace their ancestry by the purest of male lines” (4) The Nobleman declares early in the novel. Finding such great pride in his own bloodline, the Nobleman has decided to dedicate his life, i.e. the two hour period between lunch and pre-dinner drinks, to the task of crafting a novella about his own family linage, dating to the time when nobleman defended their castles against menacing “large companies of soldiers” (115), engaged in writing poems to their beloveds, and died glorified death in the name of their family’s honor. Although the Nobleman insists on reminding all who cross his path of his family’s glorious lineage, his nineteenth century life is anything but heroic. Instead, he spends his time roaming the gardens, attending luncheons and galas, and contributing the local gossip. Not to mention, writing his novella, (“Ah, but the sheer effort of writing that dense, difficult chapter” (51)) when the illusive inspiration compels him to do so. “As he walked along that silent, still damp path, Goncalo was thinking of his ancestors. They were reemerging in his novella as such solid, resonate figures! And his confident understanding of those Afonsine souls was proof his own soul was made of the same mettle, and had been carved from the same fine block of gold” (119).
The stark difference between The Nobleman of the Tower’s inner monologue and the life the readers get to witness and relish in, courtesy of the narrator, is what kept me turning the pages. The disconnect between these two voices equates to constant winks exchanged between the narrator and the readers. “Work as a lawyer in Oliveira or eve in Lisbon itself? No, he couldn’t, not with his innate, almost psychological horror of legal proceedings and paperwork” (25). Costa’s translation is a fresh reading of a novel written for a time and century long forgotten. Her translation built an approachable bridge for the modern reader.
I couldn’t help but liken the reading of Costa’s retranslation of The Illustrious House of Ramires to a book form of reality TV. That is, a highly sophisticated and worthwhile reading experience in which readers gleefully snicker at the main character’s overly inflated sense of self-worth and tantrums brought on by his natural born entitlements, Big Brother style. “Not a single tenant or laborer had answered his despairing cries! Out of his five servants, none had rushed to his aid” (123). As if The Nobleman was a contender in one of those shows where the characters are so overly concerned of their own position of the social totem-poll, that the viewers/reader leave gaining an enormous sense of relief, feeling better about their own uneventful life just for witnessing such egocentric characters. It’s other similarity to the reality TV show genre is that the camera in the Nobleman’s life is always running. Thus, viewers possess the power to tune in for the sensational primetime edited scenes, or waste their time at their corporate nooks and desks, watching the uneventful livestream. Like any good reality TV show, it’s the Nobleman’s self-assurance, self-importance, and general feelings of entitlement the drive the reader to turn the pages. And like any other good reality TV series, the pleasure for the readers of Des Queirós’ novel immerges from combining the protagonist’s pretentiousness, highlighted by his lack of actual talent, and the narrator’s brilliant work of juxtaposition between the two.
Perhaps equating a late nineteenth century book to such an infamous genre of mindless TV watching is a bit misleading, for reading The Illustrious House of Ramires is neither infamous nor mindless. Yet the novel is slow moving. If you are a reader that enjoys lengthy ruminations and extravagant sword fights of courageous ancestors who recite poetry before they draw their swords, if you cherish a world that relied less on quick come-backs and the constant need for instant gratification, this is the book for you.
When first published, Des Queirós received praise for the construction of this novel: for the readers are firsthand witnesses to The Nobleman’s novella writing; they join him at his desk as his forefathers come to life. For this, Des Queirós still deserves full glory. For it is in those moments where The Nobleman sits at his desk, that his characters take hold. These are some of the most action filled moments of the novel.
“’To the death!’”
“’Hold hard for Baiáo!’”
“’Victory for the Ramires!’” (117).
The Nobleman’s one talent comes to life at these sittings. The olden worlds he creates on the page portray his true flair and stronghold. It is only fitting, that the worlds The Nobleman conjures in his imagination are the most entertaining. Nonetheless, most of the novel is dedicated to portraying the somewhat dull, yet pompous life The Nobleman leads. Readers learn about The Nobleman’s rich, and at times, tedious lineage, his cordial and unaffectionate relationship to his only sister, his mundane routines of attending galas, luncheons, and contributing to local gossip, and his disdain of most humans, particularly women.
It is the humor that carries the weight of this novel. And it’s to Costa’s translation handiwork that readers owe their thanks to. For translated humor is hardly an easy feat. Yet Costa makes it look effortless and natural, just like any good translator should.
Mor Sheinbein was born and raised in Israel thinking in Hebrew but dreaming in English. She is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University. She teaches writing, translation, and Hebrew. She resides in Jersey City.
The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós
by José Maria de Eça de Queirós, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: New Directions
Paperback / 324 pages / 2017