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El Buscon by Francisco de Quevedo
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El Buscon (1626)

by Francisco de Quevedo

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I recently upgraded my copy of Francisco de Quevedo’s El Buscón, going from an edition written and annotated for college students of Spanish here in America to a Cátedra critical edition. This means that instead of a rudimentary introduction explaining the customs of Spain in the early 16th century, I got a thorough explanation of El Buscón´s place in the Spanish picaresque genre, and a summary of hundreds of years of critical attempts to extract meaning and moral lessons from the text. The opinion of the editor, Domingo Ynduraín, is that El Buscón should be read as an exercise in literary ingenuity, where Quevedo used the picaresque template to string together a series of intricate and humorous situations that revolve around Pablos, the unfortunate protagonist of the story. There are repeated errors in continuity, which the editor cites to justify his idea that the book was written by Quevedo more or less from the seat of his pants. There is no self-reflection by the protagonist on his life´s journey, and little to no moral advice intermingled with the entertaining stories of Pablos, as opposed to the other great picaresque novel of the era, Guzmán de Alfarache. The book is meant first and foremost to entertain the reader through the author´s genius with language and storytelling. Comparing picaresque novels to TV shows, I´d say that Guzmán de Alfarache is like The Wire, with serious issues and ruminations on morality and survival on the lowest and most desperate levels of society intermingled with entertaining and often humorous representations of urban life. El Buscón is more like a season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the arch of the story is the vehicle for Larry David to develop his particularly hilarious brand of situational humor.

El Buscón is the story of Pablos, a young man born to less than noble parents in early 16th century Spain. Due to his desire to become a gentleman, he flees his home in Segovia and passes through the university in Alcalá, the court in Valladolid, and the cities of Madrid and Sevilla. He falls in with bad and criminal crowds wherever he goes, meeting a series of ridiculous and devious characters that scrape out a living preying on the moneyed class in whatever way they can. Many of the characters in this book, such as the poor nobleman who lives at the court through smoke and mirrors, his clothing a patchwork of fabrics tied together to appear dignified, are Quevedo´s interpretations of archetypes of Spanish literature of the time, seen anywhere from Don Quijote to the plays of Lope de Vega and others. There´s nothing revolutionary going on in terms of story or characters, but Quevedo puts the Spanish language to work like few others. I was glad for the extensive footnotes (sometimes it seemed like there were more footnotes than actual text), because they keyed me in to all the multiple meanings and plays on words that are present on every page. I remember being amazed the first time I read El Buscón at the intricacy of each of the chain of situations that make up the book, and it was nice to get a second glance at them with the depth of analysis and research that accompany the Cátedra edition. I don´t think I necessarily like Quevedo as a person, based on his stiff, elitist and often downright bigoted views on society as expressed here and in his Sueños, but El Buscón is a book filled with great storytelling, and a worthwhile read.

I don´t know how well picaresque novels would fare in translation, due to the central role that intricate language and wordplay take in them. I know that there is an edition that contains Lazarillo de Tormes and El Buscón, entitled Two Spanish Picaresque Novels, that can be had for a dollar or two on amazon.com or half.com. I think it´s interesting to see the beginnings of a genre that is so universal and far-reaching. There are so many works that can be classified as picaresque, from books by Dickens, Twain and Günter Grass amongst many others, to movies like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire. Quevedo´s book helped set the stage for so much great fiction that it will always be a great read, and I enjoyed reading it over the past few days.

February 28, 2012

A few comments upon re-reading El buscón:

I didn't touch upon Quevedo's dirty mind. A lot of what happens, especially in the first part of the book when Pablos is initiated into the rough life of the pícaro, is exceedingly disgusting. I'm talking showing up for his first day of university classes and being suddenly surrounded. Then a young man with a head cold steps up and says: "this I do" and hocks a loogie in his face. Then the rest of them open fire and soon Pablos is drenched in saliva. Finally, one student steps up and says "Enough! You'll kill the poor guy." Pablos thinks he's been saved and opens his eyes, only to have them filled with another massive loogie. But that's nothing compared to when, in another hazing episode, his roommates disturb his slumber and act like thieves have broken in. Pablos hides under the bed in fear, and while he's under there, somebody defecates in his bed. When he gets back in bed, he realizes that he's rolling around in human feces and also realizes that he's at the same time innocent and guilted: who will believe him if he tries to explain that no, he didn't soil himself out of fear? And really, even that's not as bad as when his uncle writes him a letter explaining how his father has been hanged (by the same uncle, who's the town executioneer), his body discarded by the side of the road (not being worthy of a proper burial). The uncle then comments that his father's body will either be eaten by the crows or scooped up by the town bakery and turned into some meat pies. Then, when Pablos visits the uncle later in the book, they're eating some meat pies and his uncle jokingly reminds him of what he told him about his father's fate...Pablos chooses to just eat the crust. Quevedo is not afraid of putting his great figurative powers to work in the depiction of some truly foul stuff.

I also don't think I conveyed the extent of his racism. Assuming that Pablos is something of a mouthpiece for his own views on Jews and Muslims, he makes his hatred of them entirely clear. Near the end of the book he comments that he'd rather marry a poor woman of clean blood than a distinguished Jew. At one time his landlord is a Moor, and when he mentions that man's thieving ways, he says that he'd never met a man who was both a dog and a cat at the same time (cat was slang for thief, and being a Moor made him quite simply a dog). It's tough to take. I know it was a different time. When reading books from back then, it's always reassuring to find examples of prominent figures going against the prejudices of the day, like when Cervantes tells the story of Ricote in the second part of Don Quijote, depicting the injustice of the expulsion of the Conversos (descendents of Moors who had converted to Christianity) from Spain. Here, though, it's the opposite. Even at a time when there were a lot of prejudices, I get the feeling Quevedo was particularly hateful. A friend of mine also reminded me that, in his longstanding rivalry with the poet Luis de Góngora, Quevedo often accused the poet of being of impure blood. He even wrote in a sonnet that he ought to rub his poetry in bacon so that Góngora wouldn't dare bite into them (figuratively speaking).

So he's a controversial figure who stretches the limits of decency, and his beliefs are difficult to stomach here in the 21st century. However, his book is also one of the most remarkable examples of the Spanish baroque. I came back to this book because Quevedo does incredible things with the written word. He takes the vocabulary of card games, the hierarchical relationship between clothing and social class, and the language of those who live on the margins of society, and weaves together a story that is meant to challenge and amuse the discerning reader. ( )
  msjohns615 | Jan 25, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (38 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Francisco de Quevedoprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alonso Hernández, J.L.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brinkman, SophieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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