El Buscón. Introduction.
Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas (1580-1645) was one of the most brilliant and original writers of Spain’s Golden Age. A man of encyclopedic learning, he was the author of a wide range of prose and poetical works which combine moral, ethical, political and philosophical reflections with satirical observations on life. His concerns ranged from Spain’s political and moral decay (which led to a disillusioned vision of his country) to a more universal preoccupation with time, love, immortality, moral responsibility, human conduct etc.
His best known work now is probably the picaresque narrative, El Buscón (The Swindler, written ca. 1604-08, pub. 1626). This, together with the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (pub. 1554) and Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I, 1599, Part II, 1604), is one of the three canonical picaresque novels.
Interestingly, for reasons unknown, Quevedo never sought to publish El Buscón, and even denied authorship. Numerous copies circulated until it was finally published in 1626, but without Quevedo’s permission. It was an immediate success in Spain and soon caught on in other European countries.
The central narrative is straightforward enough: the protagonist, Pablos, chronicles his life from his childhood years in Segovia to his time among students in Alcalá, his experiences in Madrid and Toledo, and finally to his criminal activity in Seville, prior to his departure for America.
Along the way, he meets students, innkeepers, merchants, beggars, drunkards, hidalgos (minor nobles), Conversos (converted Jews and their descendants), Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity and their descendants), soldiers, ridiculous poets, card playing hermits, absurd armchair politician/economists, false cripples, cutthroats, thieves, swindlers, prostitutes, coquettish nuns, actors etc. This array of Spain’s lower classes is subjected to a steady dose of Quevedo’s satire and ridicule.
Interpretations vary widely. Is it a bitter satire of Spanish life, a psychological study of moral and spiritual decay, a commentary on the meaningless of life without virtue or moral compass, a game of masks, a sustained attack on Conversos? Or is it no more than a funny book, an exercise in verbal wit with no cohesive structure and no edifying purpose? It is this last aspect that we will look at briefly in this page.
El Buscón does not always make for easy reading for two reasons:
1. It is a narrative with numerous scenes in which individuals, especially Pablos the narrator, are beaten, humiliated, degraded, satirised, caricaturised. It is a funny book, but the humour is corrosive and the laughter provoked is cruel, unrelenting and dehumanising. For 17th-century readers, humour built around bodily functions might not appear objectionable, but modern sensibilities probably find scenes in which, for example, Pablos is subjected to a barrage of phlegm or covered with excrement sordid and unpleasant.
2. Quevedo was an outstanding stylist and a master with words. Indeed, for some critics El Buscón is primarily an exercise in linguistic ingenuity. For readers and translators, El Buscón is a linguistic labyrinth and challenge. The text abounds in elaborate puns, word play, conceits (metaphors) aimed at producing surprise and wonder in readers and awaken their admiration for the author’s “ingenio” (“cleverness”) and “agudeza” (‘wit” “subtlety”) qualities much appreciated in the Baroque culture of the 17th century. Such ingenuity falls under the rubric of conceptismo, a major literary development of the Baroque.
To take just one example, from Book I, Chapter 2: the skinny horse with protruding bones that Pablos rides in a carnival parade. Its haunches are monkey-like and its neck longer than a camel’s. Then playing on the similarity between “caballo” (horse) and “caballete” (ridge), Quevedo stretches the comparison: the horse’s back is so bony that it looks like a roof ridge (“caballete de tejado”: “tejado” = roof). From bones it’s a small step to skeleton, which Quevedo then associates with the well-known symbol of the messenger of death for humans: a skeleton carrying a scythe.
Quevedo then transforms that conceit saying that if Pablos’s skeletal horse had a scythe, together with its bones it would be the perfect symbol for the messenger of death in the horse world. Finally, it has so many bare patches on its skin that if it had a zipper it would be a walking jewelry chest (such chests were often covered by or lined with animal hide)! By the time we have finished with this description, the horse has disappeared as horse under the weight of succeeding images and been reduced to a comical caricature.
A further difficulty to understanding the text, and particularly for modern readers, is the underworld slang, puns and “in references” that pepper the text. For example, in Book I, chapter 2, pupil at Pablos’s first school calls Pablos’s father a “gato” (cat, but in underworld slang, a sneak thief); another claims to have thrown “berenjenas” (eggplants) at his mother when she was an “obispa” (a bishop, but here alluding to headwear worn by witches in an Inquisitorial parade). Why the reference to eggplants? They were associated with Converso or Morisco cooking. In the last chapter, Pablos addresses the reader, and lists some of the slang used by cheats: e.g. “Dar muerte” (to kill) means taking all the victim’s money, a “revesa” (a reverse) is to cheat on one’s playing partner (266), “blanco” (white) is a gullible victim. And so on.
Aggression, both verbal and physical, is a constant in El Buscón, and in many ways reflects the personality of Quevedo himself. His prickly character saw him caught up in numerous lawsuits. His acerbic wit won him powerful friends and vicious enemies both in the royal court and in literary circles. He was taunted constantly for his short-sightedness and malformed feet but was more than capable of defending himself both verbally and physically. He was an excellent fencer, defeating a fencing master in a duel (he mocks the master’s book on fencing in El buscón (Book II, chapter 1).
On another occasion, he had to flee Madrid following a duel in which he killed his opponent. He threw himself energetically into an ongoing, vitriolic verbal battle with the poet Luis de Góngora whom he accused of gambling, being a poor priest (Góngora had taken minor orders in 1586, and was ordained priest in 1617), and writing absurdly obscure poetry. He virulently satirised Góngora figure, especially his prominent nose which was popularly viewed as typical of Jews and Conversos (Góngora was a Converso). Quevedo was arrested and imprisoned twice in matters involving court intrigue. He died in his estate south east of Ciudad Real in 1645, two years after being released from his second term in prison.
Alpert, Michael (transl.) Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes, The Swindler (El Buscón) Penguin Classics, 1969
Frye, David ed. & transl. Lazarillo de Tormes and The Grifter (El Buscón) Indianapolis/ Cambridge 2015
Bjornson, Richard The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction Madison 1977
Dunn, Peter Spanish Picaresque Fiction: A New Literary History Ithaca 1993
Kamen, Henry The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1998
Rey Hazas, Antonio ed. Historia de la vida del buscón Madrid 1983
Image of Quevedo: Atribuido a Juan van der Hamen – , Dominio público, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27702609