Why Does This Portuguese City Glorify the Author Who
José Maria de Eça de Queirós Detested Life in Leiria
The town of Leiria is a small but historically significant place, with Pombaline buildings painted every color: cream, canary yellow, pink like the inside of a grapefruit. Though the town is quiet, it is comfortable and well-kept, and it boasts a handful of local attractions: Portugal’s oldest paper mill, a few lovely museums, and, standing guard over the city, a medieval castle at the top of a hill. It was constructed in the 12th century for the purpose of military defense; today, it is a beloved and imposing landmark, beaming in the evenings with the yellow glow of a dozen floodlamps. When I moved to Leiria in September, I asked around. “How do you get to the Castelo?” Finally, someone broke the news to me that it’s closed for renovations until 2021. I’ve spent the last four months gazing forlornly at it from down below.
The castle has come a long way since José Maria de Eça de Queirós, often called Portugal’s greatest realist, described it in his celebrated first novel, O Crime do Padre Amaro, which Margaret Jull Costa translated: “the rest [of the city] was concealed by the rugged hill bristling with rough vegetation on which stood the crumbling castle ruins, redolent of the past and surrounded at evening by the circling flight of owls.”
Eça de Queirós was assigned to work as an administrator in Leiria in 1871. In her 2001 biography of the author, Maria Filomena Mónica writes that Eça detested Leiria almost as soon as he arrived—the town was small at the time, only 3,000 people, and he found it dirty and the people sullen. For unknown reasons, Eça left six months later. Yet those six months were crucial, and Leiria ultimately served as the setting for his first novel, which was first serialized in 1875 (it was revised and published in final form in 1880). Eça is now read and studied across the lusophone world; his appeal reached as far as suburban Phoenix, Arizona, where I was raised by my Brazilian parents. Although I had never read O Crime do Padre Amaro before arriving in Leiria, I knew the story by heart: my mother, a Brazilian woman who studied Portuguese letters in São Paulo, urged me to give it a try every time she saw me pawing through our home’s bookshelves, looking for something to read.
The novel is a satirical indictment of small-town social dynamics in 19th century Portugal; it tells the story of Padre Amaro, a young and handsome man who enters the priesthood despite lacking a vocation. After being assigned to work in Leiria, Amaro begins a passionate affair with a young woman named Amélia; when Amélia becomes pregnant, Amaro arranges to have the infant killed by a wet nurse. Amélia dies soon afterward.
In the novel, the residents of Leiria are gracious, but they’re also garish and rough. They whisper and gossip, even as they themselves are involved in frequent love affairs. They’re devout to the point of simplemindedness, blindly following the impulses of a morally corrupt clergy. To round out these caricatures, Eça writes Leiria’s residents as comically unkempt, and they are often hairy or overweight.Why is Eça so honored in the city he despised?
In spite of this characterization of Leiria, the city reminds visitors of its appearance in Eça’s work at every given opportunity. Next door to Eça’s original Leiria residence, a modern building houses a gallery investigating the author’s life and contributions to Portuguese literature, as well as a public plaza named in his honor. Two streets down, a local café is named after the author; meanwhile, a nearby alleyway has also been renamed “Rua Eça de Queirós.” His work is easy to find in every bookstore in Leiria.
Why is Eça so honored in the city he despised? Eight years after the Portuguese economy was bailed out by the European Union, the nation is buoyed by record tourism; yet whereas Lisbon, Porto, and Faro often struggle to accommodate tourists from northern Europe and the US, the small towns of central Portugal are tasked with discovering how to lure the same tourists, all to help offset the economic challenges resulting from decades of emigration to larger European cities and beyond. In Leiria, this has meant the constant drum of construction and refurbishment, as well as investment in street art and local monuments that can serve as social media marketing. It has prompted the creation of a “Visite Leiria” campaign operated by the municipal government and renovation of the beloved Castelo de Leiria. And, of course, it has led to renewed interest in Eça de Queirós and his brief time in this small town of central Portugal.
Given the situation in Lisbon, memorializing Leiria’s literary history so that it’s fit for mass consumption could be a cause for concern. For locals, anxieties about tourism are largely economic, as previously affordable neighborhoods become increasingly costly and apartment buildings get transformed into hostels and AirBnBs. There are also concerns about cultural integrity: it’s not uncommon to hear locals complain about the number of tourists who refuse to learn a word of Portuguese.
A rise in immigration from across the lusophone world has also contributed to frustrations about internationalization in Lisbon. In 2018, the popular Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported on the various instances of xenophobia reported and protested by Brazilians living in Portugal. In January 2019, Lisbon’s Bairro de Jamaica neighborhood, where many residents are immigrants and descendants from lusophone Africa, erupted in protest after instances of police brutality in the neighborhood were filmed and shared on social media. Many of these migrants form a large part of the tourism workforce, contributing to the Portuguese economy and working as waiters, taxi drivers, and hotel employees. Is it absurd that many feel irrevocably linked with the Empire that their native countries comprised? Who is it, after all, that can rightfully lay claim to a place?
I’ve asked myself this question frequently since arriving in Portugal. As an American with Brazilian parents, I’ve found myself trying to reconcile the relative privilege of being American-born while living in Portugal with the peculiar stereotyping that Brazilians often experience. Here, the Portuguese I inherited from my family, with its Paulista rhythm, lacks the same authority as that spoken by locals; I have been told it is “too Brazilian,” and others correct my vocabulary and pronunciation often. These interactions often feel like a type of colonial paternalism in a country that has not fully reckoned with its imperialist past. In Portugal, the language of colonial “discovery” is still commonplace, and the discourse of lusotropicalism, an unfounded theory positing that the Portuguese were more humane colonizers than other Europeans, continues to influence the way that Portugal confronts issues of racism and xenophobia today.
I’m also conscious of my privileged status as an American in Europe. When I moved to Leiria, I quickly became familiar with the discourses about overtourism circulating in Portugal. The perils of overtourism are real; environmental degradation, damage to sacred sites, and vandalized historical structures are among them. Every summer, stories about overtourism emerge on English-language outlets, often focusing on environmental matters as much as they focus on the ways that social media commodifies culture—or, in other words, the way that Instagram has “ruined” travel. I started to wonder: to what extent did my own social media posts—the ones of beautiful azulejo tile and terracotta roofs—contribute to this commodification of Portugal’s image? When I corrected my peers, reminding them that Portugal did not discover Brazil, that it was already known in 1500 to humankind, just not to Europe—was this a mark of my American arrogance? And when I meandered through Alfama, wielding my American buying power in restaurants and shops catering specifically to tourists—was I contributing to the fortification of Lisbon’s dual economy?
Brazil appears in Eça’s first novel, albeit briefly. At the time of publication, Brazil had been independent for about 50 years, and had not yet abolished slavery (it was the last country in the West to do so). At one point in the novel, when Amélia realizes Father Amaro may leave her, she throws herself to the ground. “Having driven the man from her house, was she then supposed to humiliate herself, write to him and fall into his arms? No! She had her pride too! Slaves were sold and exchanged, but that was in Brazil!” At another point in the novel, Amaro is offered a position in Brazil; as the town of Leiria gossips about the sins of the clergy, he considers taking it, “ideali[zing] the banal adventure of emigration, repeating to himself over and over that he was going across the seas, exiled from his own country by the combined tyrannies of the priesthood and of the authorities, and all because he had loved a woman!” For Amélia and Amaro, Brazil represents the humiliation of servitude and exile; no sane person would venture there of their own volition.
Eça’s social criticism is once again keen, and he writes with irony in the above passages; Amélia and Amaro’s comments are not reflections of Brazil’s indignity, but of the characters’ own provincialism. Yet the author’s voice also emerges as that of a sorry patriot: in the novel’s closing sentences, he laments the decline of Portugal, calling it “a country for ever past, a memory almost forgotten!” Indeed, Eça’s criticism often came from a place of remorse, of disappointment with the state of Portugal, and his references to the postcolonial world reflect this regret. Eça was also given to racial essentialism and racism; Mónica’s biography makes frequent references to Eça’s journalism, in which he writes of the Latin Europeans’ inferiority to the Germanics; of the “treacherous” and “angry” character of Indian and Chinese emigrants working in the colonies; of the matter of Portuguese India, and how it would be better off if sold to the English. To Eça, Portugal had failed to live up to the glory of conquest; retreating from the colonies was not a matter of human rights, but a matter of governance.The building where Eça resided in Leiria has long been abandoned.
It was hard for me to ignore these comments in Eça’s writing, until I realized I shouldn’t be trying to ignore them at all. Just as reading Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen in the present continues to teach us about Britain’s relationship with its former colonies, so can reading Camões and Eça de Queirós teach us about the relationship between Portugal and the rest of the lusophone world. It has certainly done this for me, helping me to make sense of a place that is at once completely foreign to me but that also has presided over my whole life, influencing everything that I know about my family and its history.
As an American in Portugal, I must acknowledge the ways that I contribute to the issues associated with overtourism in this country. Yet I also believe that tourism helps us confront the errors of the past and usually reveals to us that those errors aren’t past at all—they’re contemporary and they’re powerful, and they show up when you look closely at who makes up a city’s tourism workforce, whose language is considered “correct” and “incorrect,” and who suffers the violence of overpolicing and police brutality. Eça’s work is critical in this regard as well, reminding us of all that has changed and all that hasn’t. If a walking tour, an Instagram story, or a gift shop is the way modern readers might discover him: que assim seja.
The building where Eça resided in Leiria has long been abandoned. There are several large plaques commemorating his time there, but the windows are cracked and broken. Most of its doors have been boarded up, while others creak open to reveal shards of glass and other debris inside. Walking this quiet alleyway, I can easily hear the bustle of 19th century Portugal: the patter of a man’s cane on the ground, the buzz of the street market, the flutter of a woman clipping laundry to an overhead clothesline. In Eça, there is opportunity to attract tourists to this charming but largely unknown town. They will stroll through the city’s gardens, trip over the calçada portuguesa, and gaze upward, toward the remarkable castle. But like in Lisbon, with them may also come immigrants from far beyond: Brazil, Angola, Cape Verde. I am hopeful that when the time comes, we might remember that the history of Portugal is also the history of these people.