Tuesday, December 5, 2017

*talk about fake news: The Mystery of the Sintra Road, by Eça de Queiróz and Ramalho Ortigão


9781909232297
Dedalus, 2013
originally published in 1870 as O mistério da estrada Sintra
translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Nick Phillips
287 pp
paperback

On July 23, 1870, readers of the Lisbon-based newspaper Diário de noticias would have seen a notice therein from the editor that said the following:
"At a rather late hour yesterday we received a singular piece of writing. It is an unsigned letter, posted to the editor, with the beginning of a stupendous narrative which suggests a dreadful crime, clouded in mystery and full of truly extraordinary occurrences which seem to have been related in order to sharpen our curiosity and confuse our minds in thousands of vague and contradictory conjectures."  (as quoted in Maria Filomena Monica's Eça de Queiróz, 69). 
The idea behind the story that was about to be published in the newspaper in daily installments (a departure from the normal serialization publication timing) came from two writers, Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz (24) and Ramalho Ortigão (33), who were both friends of the editor.   In an afterword to The Mystery of the Sintra Road, Nick Phillips writes that the two understood  that Portuguese readers had "avidly embraced foreign fiction," especially French feuilletons, and by 1870 "had become aware of a new style: the crime and detection novel." (281)  The two writers decided that they'd give it a go as well,
"to be published as instalments (sic) in the newspaper, Diário de Noticias, with the intention of stirring up Lisbon, which they saw as a city overcome by inertia, and showing its people how literary styles were changing." (282)
In Nancy Vosburg's Iberian Crime Fiction, Paul Castro notes that it was "designed to be a hoax, a spoof devised to reveal the attitudes of its readers and expose their stance to critical ridicule." (117)

The editor/founder of the newspaper saw its publication as an opportunity to "boost circulation," and the first installment began July 24th.  Phillips explains that on that day, a letter to the editor appeared in which the anonymous author said that he was a doctor who had been
 "kidnapped at pistol-point, blindfolded, bundled into a coach and taken to the site of what looked to be a serious crime.. He had been released unharmed, but through fear of retribution for having written to the newspaper, he had not dared to sign his letter."
 And we're off, into a series of events which the Doctor himself called "so grave, so veiled in mystery, so seemingly steeped in criminality," that he felt that the facts should be made available to the public "as a way of providing the only key to unlocking what seems to me a truly horrifying drama."  I won't and can't get into plot here, but the drama, as so nicely recounted on the back-cover blurb is as follows:
"Two friends are kidnapped by several masked men, who, to judge by their manners and their accent come from the very best society. One of the friends is a doctor, and the masked men say that they need him to assist a noblewoman, who is about to give birth. When they reach the house, they find no such noblewoman, only a corpse.  Another man, known only as A.M.C., bursts in at this point and declares that the dead man died of opium poisoning."
 This section, which introduces the crime and its seeming impossibility, is followed by a fake letter from a reader, then a letter from the friend of the doctor who was with him at the time of the abduction, another fake letter, and then we come to the testimony of one of the "masked men" who had taken part in the kidnapping.  Then we hear from A.M.C. himself, followed by the confession of the killer, and then all is concluded with a final account, once again from A.M.C.  The back-cover blurb also reveals that "Many readers believed the letters to be genuine," which made me think that if people were actually believing that this whole thing was true because it was in the paper every day, it would have been great fodder for morning coffee conversation at home or later around the 1870 equivalent of the office water cooler. As I said in my GR post, it was a case of fake newsapolooza!!

Looking back on their work in 1884, Eça de Queiróz notes that today he and his co-author find their tale "quite atrocious," and indeed, while it begins mysteriously enough, I found that once the "tall masked man" got his say, the story moved into a different territory altogether. Granted, everything he says helps lead to the final reveal, where the mystery sort of just flattens for a while until we get back to the crime elements.  On the other hand, though, I was so caught up in the story that I didn't care, and put together, this book made for what I like to call a rollicking good yarn, so good, in fact, that after turning the last page, I put the novel down and applauded.  Serious crime readers wanting just the crime facts etc.,  may not find it to their liking, but I'm in for its place in the history of crime -- the first Portuguese crime novel --  and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.  It may not be the most intellectually-stimulating book in my reading history, but I loved it. Sometimes you just gotta let go and have fun.

... and as usual, there's plenty going on under the surface, so read it slowly if you can.