No less than José Saramago said that Eça de Queirós is Portugal's greatest novelist. As a writer of realist fiction, Eça has been placed in the same rank as Flaubert, Balzac, and Tolstoy. This is the second novel of Eça's that I have read. ("The City and the Mountain" was the first.) And, yes, he is a great writer. And, yes, he is a realist. But there is a tongue-in-cheek, playful quality to Eça's writing, at least as represented by the two novels that I now have read. Eça gently mocks the pretensions of humans. His view of life is essentially comedic, not tragic.
In THE YELLOW SOFA, respectable Lisbon businessman Godofredo da Conceiçao Alves (I don't know Portuguese, but a name like that surely would not be given to a tragic hero) returns to the office to be told by the clerk that his business partner and close friend Senhor Machado left to attend the theater. Alves goes about his work until he suddenly realizes that it is his fourth wedding anniversary. He quickly leaves to make arrangements for a special dinner and on his way home he buys his wife Lulu a bracelet -- a golden serpent with two rubies for eyes, biting its own tail, symbolizing lasting continuity. When he gets home, he silently proceeds to Lulu's boudoir to surprise her with his early arrival and the gewgaw, he draws the curtain, and there, on a yellow damask sofa, is Lulu in a white negligee gazing languorously at a man whose arm is around her waist . . . and the man is Machado.
Alves's life is turned akilter. His rage knows no bounds. Lulu clearly cannot live in his house any longer. He summons her father to collect his daughter. His father-in-law, however, claims that he cannot afford to take her back; furthermore, Alves, gentleman that he is, surely would not throw her out on the streets. It appears that the only option is for Alves to pay the father-in-law a monthly stipend to take back Lulu, plus an extra sum for the next few months so that the father-in-law can spirit her away from Lisbon to a seaside resort to minimize the potential for nasty gossip. As for Machado, well there must be a duel. But what kind of duel? "A duel with swords, two shirt-sleeved business men aiming clumsy and futile thrusts at each other until one was wounded in the arm -- that seemed to him ridiculous; nor was it fitting that they should exchange a couple of pistol shots, miss each other, and then each of them, flanked by seconds, turn and climb ceremoniously into hired carriages." And so goes the novel, posing one quandary after another, with Alves continually having to reconcile his impulses to the social world around him.
To tell the truth, THE YELLOW SOFA is something of a literary bonbon. It certainly is not on the order of "Madame Bovary", or "Lost Illusions", or "Anna Karenina". But its 112 pages make good fare for an evening's reading.