Guzmán de Alfarache. From equality to heroism.

Guzmán de Alfarache: From Impure Blood to Hero.

Guzmán de Alfarache is both a pícaro (**rogue, scoundrel) and a converso (Christian of Jewish descent).
** A 16th-century writer defined a pícaro as “a vile,
low-class man who goes around poorly dressed and
looking like he has no honour” (Johnson 166.)
  As a boy and young man living by his wits, he reminds us a lot of Lázaro de Tormes, although Lázaro is not identified as pícaro or  converso.   But, unlike Lázaro, who addresses a shadowy VM, Guzmán engages us, his readers, directly from the first moment. In the style of the great preachers of the period, Guzmán constantly exhorts, criticises, needles, prods, and encourages us, drawing us into his
narrative. And what does he want to tell us? Basically that he is a sinner but that we are no better than he is because we all practice deception, hypocrisy, lying, flattery etc. In addition, he has written his life so that we might avoid the pitfalls he has experienced. This was a presumptuous claim at that time from someone who was no saint, and to come from the mouth of pícaro/ converso was audacious.
A pícaro and converso … how does Alemán argue that the life of such an individual could have something of value to offer to his readers? He does so by combining the low-born pícaro with the despised converso and demonstrating how we are all equal, not in social rank but in substance (i.e. blood in the book’s context).  But it was a very daring step in 16th-century Spain to claim equality of substance for conversos. Alemán attacks the converso problem by demonstrating that conversos, i.e. New Christians, were in fact no different from Old Christians. Why was this important? We know from his life that Alemán was a reformer and sympathised with the plight of the poor. Undoubtedly the fact that Alemán was himself a converso also had much to do with it.

The Converso Problem: Background.

Why were conversos so disparaged in Spain in the 16th century?  The problem first reared its ugly head mid-way through the 15th century following the conversion of an unprecedented number of Jews to Christianity (for reasons, see Jews and Conversos in 15th-century Spain). This widespread conversion created two kinds of Christians: Old Christians and New Christians (i.e. conversos). Much of the pressure for conversion had come from the Old Christians (particularly commoners), who resented the power and influence enjoyed by many Jews as, for example, administrators to the crown and numerous noble families, tax collectors, lawyers, scribes, physicians, translators, emissaries, merchants, traders, shopkeepers, financiers. Ironically, however, what the conversion did was confirm the New Christians in the positions they (or their Jewish predecessors) had enjoyed and provide access to three important social positions previously unavailable to them as Jews: to the church (and religious orders), to public office and --through marriage-- to Christian nobility. Increased resentment amongst Old Christians soon fuelled accusations about the sincerity of converso conversions.  Allegations were made that conversos still practised Judaism in secret (and some did), that they were enemies of the Church, and were conspiring to kill Old Christians. They were also accused of seizing control of key offices with the aim of destroying Christian society from within. Following a major rebellion in Toledo in 1449, a statute was issued aimed at denying all conversos or their descendants access to public office.  It was the first clear articulation that blood and race and not religion were the principal features distinguishing those living in Spanish society. (The same criterion would be applied also to converted Muslims –Moriscos.)  Purity of blood, --limpieza de sangre-- here appears for the first time.  The statute expressed the deep felt sentiments of commoners in Toledo but quickly it became a national obsession as restrictions for those with Jewish lineage become widespread.  As a result, thousands of conversos (including nobility) did everything possible to hide their family history. A notable example is Sta. Teresa de Avila, one of the most esteemed Catholic saints, who studiously avoided any reference to her Jewish blood in her autobiography. Conversos commonly resorted to concocting false lineages, bribing Old Christians to give false testimony and vouch for them; Alemán too had availed himself of false testimony!

Alemán’s Arguments for Equality.

How does Alemán argue against this ugly social blight of limpieza? Basically, he does so by pointing out the false conclusions we draw from external appearances or social rank: internally, there is no fundamental difference between people. One simple way was to have Guzmán do what we know thousands of others did in 16th-century Spain: appropriate a noble name of Visigothic origin as a means of confirming a long historic lineage “untainted” by Jewish blood.  You see, we don’t know the narrator’s real name; Guzmán is what he decides to call himself when he leaves home “in order not to be known, I didn’t take my father’s name but … my mother’s” (1, i, 2 **).
**References are to Part, Book and Chapter
The name had actually been chosen by his grandmother, a prostitute, who didn’t know who had impregnated her and told Guzmán’s mother she had selected the name Guzmán because she believed she had had sex with a prominent member of that family. Of course, the Grandmother’s explanation is a satirical detail but the reality is that the appropriation of a noble name was often done.   So, if there were so many Guzmáns --or Mendozas, Pachecos etc.-- wandering around, what was to distinguish between the real and the false, between the old and the new, and of course, between an old Guzmán and a new Guzmán, or an Old Christian and a New Christian?
Another and more significant method was to establish certain general principles that implied equality without in any way deviating from Christian orthodoxy: to say, e.g. that we are all sinners, “we all lie” (2, i, 7), “we all deceive” (2, i, 3), “we are all a pile of dust” ( 2, i, 7), and so on.  The text is full of such sermonising generalisations which point to our common human condition. Such generalisations are all inclusive: All of us.  The implications were considerable: what then was to distinguish between a pícaro and a noble if we all lie, deceive etc.? It should not surprise us if a pícaro should get drunk and become “the laughing stock of the town and ridiculed by everyone,” but what about those “who believe themselves to be someone, the nobles, the powerful, those who should abstain should do so (i.e. get drunk etc.!” (1, ii, 7)? How often do we find references in Golden Age literature to drunken nobles or nobles being public objects of laughter or scorn? We don’t!  But that is not all. It is understandable that the poor should rob, but there are also “upstanding thieves (ladrones de bien...)  those who wear decorative velvet trappings... and festoon their walls with brocades and cover their floors with gold and Turkish silk.... They live on their reputation and are upheld by their power and favoured by flattery; their power frees them from the gallows ... and the galleys were not made for them except for them to command" (2, i, 7). The powerful, then, are still thieves and drunkards and basically no different from or better than a powerless pícaro/converso.
A third argument, and the most compelling, looks at the source of our human condition. It is here where converso question is most directly addressed. Where does our human condition come from?  Well, the Bible teaches us that we are all children of Adam and Eve.  Nothing could be more orthodox:  “we are all men and all of us ... sin in Adam” (2, iii,1). We all sin because “the first father was disloyal, the first mother a liar; the first son a thief and murderer” (1, iii, 1).  In other words, then, the “sin” or “stain” to use a more appropriate word in the 16th- and 17th-century context, does not proceed from our immediate parents or grandparents etc. but goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.  We all, Christians and conversos, then have the same blood, and since we all have the same blood, how --it may then be inferred-- can one talk about “purity of blood” "limpieza de sangre"? “Look brother,’ says Guzmán talking at one point of how we all put on an act, “you are what I am, and we are all one” (1, ii, 10). From the time of Adam, “Everything has been, is and will be the same.”

But Alemán wasn’t satisfied with claiming only equality in substance (i.e. blood) for his protagonist. He seems to suggest something more: that the disparaged pícaro-converso's life-story also qualified Guzmán to be viewed as a hero.

Guzmán as Hero?

Mateo Alemán’s contention --that the pícaro-converso protagonist of his fictional autobiography was in no way inferior in substance to those socially superior-- was a radical challenge to accepted social norms in 16th-century Spain. Guzmán readily admits his lowly status of pícaro, but as he reminds us, “clothes do not make the monk" (I, ii, 3,).  And then, recalling a sermon he had heard a “learned Augustinian” preach, he makes a startling assertion: the sermon “dealt with everyone ... from the most powerful prince to someone as vile as me (1, ii, 3). “Heavens --I began to think-- he’s talking about me and I am a someone: I can be listened to! ?Well, what light can I provide and how can there be light in a man of such low and scorned status?  Yes, my friend, I replied to myself, he’s talking about you and talking to you, for you too are a member of this mystical body, equal to all in substance although not in rank” (i, ii, 3). This is a bold claim from a pícaro-converso. But if we are the same, if we are all children of Adam and Eve, there is nothing theologically objectionable in this.  And, as Guzmán cleverly reminds us, this is something that he heard a “learned Augustinian” preach, a man presumably of unimpeachable orthodoxy. Clearly, Guzmán is not talking about rank, but something more fundamental in the Spanish context:  substance... blood, and with it dignity.  If we are all equal in blood, then a pícaro/ converso is not only equal to Old Christians, he can also have something valuable to say. Indeed, “even in pícaros there is virtue, and this can be a light for you” (I, ii,3). 
What is Guzmán’s virtue?  What light can he offer? Is it his repentance, announced at the end of the book? Is it his desire that all men be saved through his story? Is it the virtue of painting life as it is, or setting himself up as a sacrificial example of what not to do for the good of others?  This is not so far-fetched;  it may be something that Alemán himself dared suggest only at the beginning of Part II, following the resounding success of Part I.  It is interesting that in his Prologue to the Discreet Reader in Part I, Alemán seems a little unsure of the reception of his protagonist and is almost apologetic when he addresses the reader: "Whatever you find not serious or agreeable, it’s because the theme of this book is about a pícaro. By the beginning of Part II, however, the tone is bolder: “The theme is humble and lowly.  The beginning was small; what I intend to deal with, if you chew it over ... could be important, serious and great (2, i, 1). But how could the life of a pícaro-converso, a cheat, a liar, a pimp, be "important, serious and great"? Clearly not as a model to imitate, but from a repentant sinner’s point of view, it can serve as an example of what to avoid.  And so it is with Guzmán.  Of course he is not the first sinner to have repented and preached against all those sins that he knows at firsthand.  The great example is St Augustine’s Confessions.  Indeed, in the very important first chapter of Part II, Guzmán appropriates the word confesion (2, i, 1) to emphasise the orientation of his life journey (which he has earlier called a pilgrimage) And what is the purpose of this confession? It is, as he underlines, to save others, "so that you do not imitate me; rather that knowing my errors you will correct yours.  If you see me fallen because of my bad ways, behave so that you will come to hate what tripped me up, don’t step where you saw me slip and let my fall serve as a warning. For you are a mortal being just like me and probably neither stronger nor cleverer" (2, i, 1). "I absorb the beatings from which you draw the lessons" (2, i, 1). Others, then, may learn from Guzmán’s mistakes, which in fact take on a sacrificial quality: "At my cost and with my own hardships I uncover dangers and pitfalls so that you do not rush in and harm yourself nor shut yourself in where you cannot find a way out" (2, i, 1).
So on top of equality in substance (i.e. blood) now we have a commoner of the lowest order, a pícaro-converso, offering his life as an antidote (atriaca 2, i, 1) for the good of others.

Guzmán’s claims are bold, challenging, and letting us know that we are all bad makes us feel uncomfortable.  As he observes; "I am speaking the truth and that is bitter for you to take" (2, i, 1).  And he is right. It is easy to see the sins of others without seeing our own failings. But what is startling here is that this is a pícaro-converso making these claims and not a preacher!  By doing so, Guzmán sets himself up as the hero of his tale, one who through his conversion and redemption recognises what he was and what he now believes himself to be: an example so that others might be saved.


By setting Guzmán up as a hero, Alemán is treading new ground. Heroes traditionally belonged to nobility, engaged in valiant exploits, often embroidered with magic or supernatural beings, and usually set in the past. Alemán offers us a contemporary, low-born repentant sinner living very much in a real world. Heroes normally were the subjects of epic poems. Could Alemán be claiming his work was an epic tale?

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Rico, Francisco ed. La novela picaresca española: Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzmán de Alfarache Barcelona 1967