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the mandarin

25 december 2022

The Mandarin and Other Stories is a sampling, not planned by Eça de Queiroz but put together by Dedalus in the 21st century, of the Portuguese master's shorter fiction, rendered into English by Margaret Jull Costa. All four pieces in the volume are simply superb.

The earliest story in the set comes from 1873: "The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman." In this case, Luisa's main idiosyncrasy is shoplifting, though she isn't averse to purloining anything not nailed down. The reader picks that up early on; it takes her prospective fiancé Macário quite a while to figure out, since he's blinded by love. The story is notable for its elaborate frame: Macário is really an internal narrator, telling his story to the frame narrator after a chance meeting: "What you wouldn't tell your wife or your best friend, tell to a stranger in an inn" (90).

The title novella is a fable with a curiously realistic texture. "The Mandarin," says Jull Costa, is based on a teaching story formulated by Chateaubriand (10). Suppose you could have unlimited wealth, just by ringing a bell and thereby killing a stranger in China, without any consequence to yourself. Would you do it?

There would be no story if the narrator, Teodoro, just thought about the experiment and didn't try it. Tempted by the Devil, Teodoro rings the bell and – after some delay where he's sure he'd dreamt the whole thing – gets his fabulous wealth. Of course Teodoro isn't satisfied with his riches, swinging from sybaritic indulgence to waves of guilt over the fate of the Mandarin. So he organizes an expedition to China, to try to make things right for the Mandarin's family and perhaps even for the entire Chinese state, which seems to have been plunged into crisis by the man's death. And of course that expedition goes even worse than staying home would have.

"The Mandarin" is told with an arch, throwaway sense of humor that marks it as a fable nested within many ironies. The nearest analogue I can think of is Oscar Wilde, especially in the mode of tales like "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime."

The other two stories in the volume come from late in Eça's career. "The Hanged Man" (1895) is a ghost story, but this does not become evident till about halfway through, after Eça sets up a terrific narrative situation: a love triangle at cross purposes, where two of the parties, potential lovers, have never even met. "José Matías" (1897) is an exasperating story of a man who loves, and is loved by, a famous beauty – but forever defers any possibility of marrying or even physically approaching her.

Eça de Queiroz. The Mandarin and Other Stories. [1873-1895]. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2009.