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On the Hot Seat

Found in a trunk 24 years after its author's death, The Yellow Sofa is a delightful little masterpiece. Just released in the U.S., one century after Eça de Queirós's death, it still keeps its freshness.

The Yellow Sofa, by Eça de Queirós, trans. by John Vetch 
(New Directions, 112 pp., $10.95 paper) 

Bondo Wyszpolski

The untitled manuscript which would become known as The Yellow Sofa was found in a trunk in 1924, a quarter of a century after the author's death. In his introduction to the work, José Maria d'Eça Queirós says this, "In the end, there are only two points in the confused history of the manuscript which can be asserted with safety and precision: that my father wrote it, and that I have brought it to the light of day."

And for these two points we can be grateful.

Eça de Queirós is generally regarded as Portugal's greatest 19th century novelist, and the mighty Zola himself is quoted as saying, "He is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert."

So let's begin. Godofredo Alves comes home early from work one afternoon to surprise his wife—and surprise her he does, with his business partner Machado.

Outraged, Alves is resolute about what steps must be taken: his wife, Lulu (Ludovina), is banished to her father's house, and clearly Machado must be challenged to a duel.

Soon the crafty father-in-law arrives, and we meet Lulu's sister Teresa as well as the domineering young maid, Joanna (who may be something more than just the old man's housekeeper).

By this time, The Yellow Sofa has begun to stride jauntily on legs of its own, and despite the seriousness of the subject—adultery, for god's sake—there's a lilting, easy-going rhythm in the prose that seems in stern contrast to the author's contemporaries in the rest of Europe. In truth, without being outright funny, there's an amusing undercurrent to the novella that roughly parallels Brazil's Machado de Assis and prefigures the wry masterworks of Jorge Amado, let alone Portugal's José Saramago.

Alves calls on his friends, Carvalho and Medeiros, and while no one would describe them as happy-go-lucky, it transpires that they have had affairs and what of it? Before long, they conclude that what Alves is so upset over hardly qualifies as more than a flirtation. Their strategy is that Alves should save face and eventually forgive and forget.

We must remember that Alves is indignant throughout most of this book; after all, his integrity and good name have been besmirched. It's not that Carvalho and Medeiros don't take him seriously, it's just that they don't live in an uptight country—like the present-day United States.

The best part of The Yellow Sofa is in its turnaround. These pages are to be savored, it's like the sudden arrival of your favorite dessert, and it's only at the very end, when the book surges forward and quickly ties up all of its loose ends, that it seems forced and a bit rushed. No matter, we have been pleased and entertained, we have had a few laughs and perhaps a few tears, and I shall say only this, The Yellow Sofa is an engrossing delight.

An Excerpt:

His only fear was that the trinket would be too expensive. But no, only a fiver, and as he examined it, the jeweler told him that he had just sold another such to the Marchesa de Lima. He hesitated no longer but paid at once and when he had gone a few paces down the street, he stopped at a shady spot, opened the box and gave it another look, so pleased was he with his purchase. And as so often happens to someone giving a present, he was overcome by a door opening into a man's egoism and innate greed, and through it a broad tide of latent generosity sweeping in. At that moment, he would have liked to be rich, so as to be able to give her a diamond necklace. For she deserved it. They had been married four years and never had there been a cloud between them.

The moment he had first seen her, one evening in Pedrouças, he had worshipped her; but he could now admit that he had at first been overawed by her. He had thought her proud, exacting, aloof. All because of her lovely figure, her big dark eyes, her erect bearing, her crisp wavy hair...But in that magnificent body of a barbarous queen, he had discovered the heart of a child. She was good, charitable, lighthearted, and her disposition was as placid and gentle as the limpid surface of a summer river.

Some four months ago, for a brief while, she had shown some depression, a little melancholy, a touch of nerves, so that he had wondered whether...But unfortunately, it was not that! It had been nerves. It had passed and a reaction followed—never had she been more tender, so happy as in the recent past, filling him with such contentment. 

And beneath his sunshade in the burning heat, as he climbed up New Street at Carmo, all this was dancing merrily in his heart. At the top of the street, at Mata's restaurant, he stopped to order a fish pie for six o'clock. He also bought a cold ham and looked around to see what else he could take, eager and happy as a bird that is furnishing its nest. Then he climbed the Chiado. He stopped for a moment to look at a poet and historian, a celebrity, who wore an old silk jacket and straw hat and was at that moment chatting at the entrance of the Bernard, about to blow his nose with his enormous flowered handkerchief. Alves admired his novels and liked his style. He then bought some cigars for his father-in-law, for after dinner. Finally, he went down the Post Office steps which glittered in the sunlight, dusty and dry. In spite of the heat, he walked quickly, fingering from time to time the box with the bracelet, which he had put into his jacket pocket.

He had reached São Bento Street, a few steps from home, when he saw their servant girl, Margarida, waiting at the confectioner's counter. He at once realized that Lulu had not forgotten the happy date, their anniversary; Margarida had been sent to buy cakes and pastries.

In a couple of paces, he entered his own door. It was a building of two stories, painted blue, hemmed in between two tall buildings. He occupied the first floor, and was not on good terms with his neighbors above—noisy, common people—and did not like their sharing the comfort he had brought into the entrance hall, when at Lulu's request he had had the staircase carpeted. But he had not regretted it; it was always a pleasure, on entering the building, to feel beneath his feet the carpet covering the stairs, giving him a feeling of solid comfort. All this helped his self-esteem.

Upstairs, the maid Margarida had just returned and left the door ajar; deep silence reigned within the house; everything seemed to be asleep in the extreme heat of the day. A strong glare came from the skylight, and the bell-pull, with its scarlet tassel, hung motionless.

Then he had an absurd idea, like a playful bridegroom—to go, step by step, into the lounge and surprise Lulu, who at that hour would normally be dressing for dinner. And he was already smiling at the little cry that she would give, perhaps in her white skirt, her lovely arms bare...The first room was the dining-room which led, through two curtained doors, to her boudoir and the drawing-room. He went in. On the carpeted floor, his light summer shoes made not the slightest sound. Everything seemed deserted, in a silence so complete that he could even hear the sound of frying coming from the kitchen and the canary hopping about in its cage on the balcony. He went towards the boudoir curtain and, smiling a little smile, was going to draw it and surprise her, when there came from behind the half-drawn curtain of the drawing-room a slight noise, indistinct, something of a sigh, a throat being cleared. Hearing her there, he turned, peeped in...And what he saw—good God!—left him petrified, breathless. The blood rushed to his head and so sharp was the pain at his heart that it almost threw him to the ground. On the yellow damask sofa, fronting a little table on which there stood a bottle of port, Lulu in a white negligee, was leaning in abandon on the shoulder of a man whose arm was around her waist, and smiling as she gazed languorously at him.

The man was Machado!

As the curtain moved, Ludovina had seen him, and with a cry, instinctively jumped up from the sofa. Alves heard the cry but was quite unable to move. He found himself slumped, he knew not how, in a chair beside the door and he was trembling, cold all over, yet shaking as in a fever. Through the tumult of the fever, which filled his head and left him bereft of thought, he heard the turmoil going on in the drawing-room, heavy footsteps pacing the carpet, whispered words anxiously exchanged...There was the sound of the latch on the door leading to the staircase, then silence. Then the thought that the two of them had fled restored his strength, anger possessed him, and with a leap he burst headlong into the room. But he stumbled over a fox skin which adorned the doorway and went sprawling ridiculously on the carpet. When he got to his feet, his fists clenched in fury, the curtain at the door to the staircase was swinging to and fro in the breeze: there was no one in the room.

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