The City Man and the Country Man

“The City and the Mountains” by Jose Maria Eca de Queiros (1901) – 277 pages    Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

The plot of “The City and the Mountains” is very similar to the plot of Aesop’s famous fable, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, except the protagonists are humans instead of mice.

Jacinto lives in sheer luxury at 202 Champs Elysees in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century.  His conviction is, “a man can only be superlatively happy when he is superlatively civilized.”  What better place than Paris at that time?   He has the world’s finest chefs prepare his meals.  His house has every form of expensive drapings, furniture, and technical gadgets imaginable.  He puts on lavish parties and invites the most stylish cocottes in Paris.  Books of every sort, dictionaries, manuals, guides, even some novels are piled everywhere.  But over time, none of these possessions or his full social calendar gives him any satisfaction.  He becomes neurasthenic and bored, over-sated with everything.   

Jacinto’s friend de Fernandes was born in Paris, but had the good fortune to spend 7 years working in the rural mountains of Portugal with his farmer uncle Alfonso who in the end “died as easily – and may God be praised for this grace – as a little bird falls silent at the end of a day spent in full song and full flight.”

Having spent my first 18 years on the farm, I am very skeptical about these paeans to the simple idyllic rural life.  Hell, I was even skeptical of the city mouse and the country mouse fable.  I suppose the rural life might be good if you can stand the boredom, but already by the age of 5 all I wanted to do was get away from the farm.   And a life without books?  You’ve got to be kidding me.

“The City and the Mountain’ is not one of Eca de Queiros’ best books.  In fact I would recommend that readers not familiar with Eca de Queiros start with his novel “The Relic” which is a true masterpiece.  “The City and the Mountains” is fairly good, but I always try to start with the best.  The premise to “The City and the Mountain” is just too thin to sustain this long of a novel.  Also Eca de Queiros tries to set up a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza relation between Jacinto and de Fernandes which only shows how much better Cervantes did it. After you have read “The Relic” and a couple of his other novels, you might want to pick up “The City and the Mountain” to prove I was wrong. 

Jose Saramago has called Eca de Queiros “Portugal’s greatest novelist.”  Of course, Saramago was no slouch as a novelist himself.  When I talk about Portuguese literature, I like to refer to Portugal’s magnificent triumvirate of Eca de Queiros, Fernando Pessoa, and Jose Saramago.  I’m sure by reducing Portuguese literature to these three, I’m omitting some other great Portuguese writers, so I would appreciate the names of other Portuguese writers I should consider.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. An interesting premise the books has… and an old world feel. Would make for interesting reading I think. Nice review. 😀

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    • Hi Deboshree,
      Yes, Eca de Queiros is a wonderful writer, I just much preferred “The Relic” to “The City and the Mountain”. We all have our own favorites.

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  2. Given your comments about your youthful experience with rural life, I would be very interested if you took on Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, a Dutch novel which won the IMPAC last year. The central character was a university student, forced to return home to run the family farm when his twin brother died. I think his distaste for that “rural” life is what drives his animosity to his world (and produces a very good novel). Lisa Hill in her review at ANZ LitLovers has raised the issue of whether the son-father distancing in the book is a Dutch characteristic — my feeling was that it is “rural distaste” which produced it (a similar theme runs through Stoner, set closer to home for both you and me). It is not a long novel and, if you have time to take it on, your impressions would be most welcome. I think you would find it an interesting take, given your own impressions.

    Apologies for taking this post somewhat off-track.

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    • Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for the tip on “The Twin”. I’ve read so many books that praise rural life at the expense of city life, I really would like to see the tables turned. I never would have been called home to run the farm as I was viewed as a total incompetent for that line of work. I have an older brother who is still a farmer, and he convinced me early on that I was no farmer.

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  3. Posted by Kelly S on March 4, 2011 at 2:43 AM

    Or someone can get the best of both worlds and live in the suburbs! 😉

    Actually, having spent quite a bit of time on my grandparents’ farm, I’ve always liked the slow pace and peacefulness of the country. Unfortunately I have low tolerance for farm work.

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    • Hi Kelly,
      The farm, the city, the suburb – they all have their advantages and their disadvantages. we can’t go back to a world like the one I was in as a kid, and I’m Ok with that.

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  4. I’m a fan of Eca de Queiros. I love The Yellow Sofa. I have not read this book. I agree with your trio of great Portuguese writers. Though, I’m always on the lookout for their female counterparts.

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  5. Hi Kinna,
    Thanks for the mention of “The Yellow Sofa” – I just looked it up, and that may be by next Eca de Queiros. Speaking of Portuguese woman writers, Margaret Jull Costa has become the gold standard of Portuguese translators, the translator you can rely on.

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