Guzmán de Alfarache.

Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I 1599, Part II 1604). Author, Mateo Alemán (1547-1614?).

Few people read Guzmán de Alfarache nowadays and even fewer have heard of it. Nevertheless, it was
an immediate success and best seller in its day, more so than Don Quixote (Part I 1605, Part II 1615).  Twenty-two editions of Guzmán, Part I (1599) were published before Part II appeared (1604) and six editions of the latter appeared within three years.  Translations into French, English and Italian quickly followed. Part I into French in 1600, and the two parts in 1619-20. Part I appeared in Italy in 1606 and Part II in 1615. In England, both parts were printed in 1622-23.

Like Don Quixote, Guzmán de Alfarache is a long and complex work set in the late-16th early-17th century and incorporating all levels of society. There the similarity ends.  Guzmán is a fictional autobiography, narrated by a pícaro-converso**, whose adventures are interspersed with heavy doses of moralising, sermonising and reflections on the social, political and economic conditions in Spain at that time.
**Converso(s): used primarily to refer to converts from Judaism to Christianity and their descendants. See Jews and conversos in 15th-century Spain.

Guzmán is commonly linked with the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (published 1554) and Francisco de Quevedo’s El Buscón (published 1626, although likely written before 1604) as one of the three iconic texts giving birth to picaresque fiction. However, it is the single most influential text in establishing the fundamental paradigms by which picaresque fiction is measured. It also has an important place in the development of the modern novel. Several of the texts published in the years after Guzmán’s publication (especially Part I) are responses to (e.g. Juan Martí’s sequel to Guzmán, Part I, 1602, or Vicente Espinel’s Marcos de Obregón, 1618) or reactions against the claims of social advancement in the text (e.g. López de Ubeda’s La pícara Justina, 1605, or Quevedo’s Buscón).

While Lazarillo de Tormes is marked by its compactness, Guzmán is notable for its long, rambling, digressive structure in which anecdotes, fables, short stories, sermons, moral commentaries, exhortations to the reader are intertwined with the narrator’s tale about his life. Guzmán, the first narrator to identify himself as a pícaro, voluntarily sets out from Seville at a young age (a little more than 12). He abandons his mother and a relatively comfortable life as a spoiled child to undertake a pilgrimage to see the world and find out something about his father’s family in Genoa.  So begins a long, circular journey through Spain and Italy before he returns finally to Seville. (His travels take him from Seville to Madrid, and then to Toledo, Almagro, Genoa, Rome, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Milan, back to Genoa, and then Barcelona, Zaragoza, Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, and finally Seville.)

Along the way, he meets hundreds of people, from beggars to cardinals of the church and ambassadors. His employment ranges from the kitchen servant to page in the cardinal’s household and fool in the ambassador’s court.  He deceives and is deceived. He makes money, takes on a servant and loses both. He becomes a brilliant student (so he tells us!) in Alcalá, but shortly after becomes his wife’s pimp to make ends meet. He is in constant pursuit of security, money, and social advancement, employing unscrupulous means rather than gainful work. He finally ends up a galley slave at sea serving His Majesty, but only after undergoing a conversion from sinner to repentant, which allows him to pen his life as a warning to others.

Some Interpretations:
That the book had a didactic purpose should not surprise us in an age when the Horatian formula of edification and enjoyment was commonplace.  Alemán himself cautions us - -“discreet" readers-- not to enjoy the picaresque tales of Guzmán’s life at the expense of the edification, a matter underlined by the subtitle to the book: Atalaya de la vida humana (“The Watchtower of Human Life"). 

Some have interpreted the combination of picaresque adventures and the heavy doses of moralising, sermonising, (the verb oír --"to hear "-- is used frequently e.g. 484) and philosophising on human conduct as a defence of Catholic orthodoxy and teachings about original sin, free will, grace and individual responsibility.

This Counter Reformation viewpoint has been refuted in favour of another in which Catholicism is attacked by a cynical converso, which explains, for many, the disillusioned tone of the book.

Others downplay the converso thesis in favour of a wider interpretation based the social and economic conditions of Spain at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. For instance, Guzmán has been viewed as an embodiment of the frustrated merchant, or merchant in the making, and as an attack on Genoese control of Spanish trade and financing. 

It has also been argued that Guzmán attempts to climb the social ladder by acquiring “symbolic capital,” i.e. knowledge of how the game of social interaction is played. To achieve this Guzmán must make use of whatever resources he possesses to accumulate favours to climb that social ladder. Each favour earned forms part of his own caudal, his source of capital/ wealth, whether through his cleverness, his service, or his manipulations etc.

In addition to a commentary on social and economic problems, Guzmán de Alfarache has also been interpreted as a critique on the treatment of the poor. The book is full of comments and observations that conform to the numerous discourses penned at this time by the many arbitristas (writers of treatises expressing their concern at the state of the country) dealing with the ills of the country. Indeed, Alemán was a close friend of one such writer, Cristóbal Pérez de Herrera, physician, economist and soldier, and author of Del amparo y reformación de los fingidos vagabundos (Regarding the Help and Reform of False Vagrants 1595), and Discurso del amparo de los legítimos pobres y reducción de los fingidos (A Treatise on Help for the Legitimately Poor and the Reduction of False Ones 1598). Therefore, in addressing these economic and social problems Alemán was treading a well-travelled path. 

Alemán’s affinity to arbitrista opinions were likely based on his own experiences. Son of a physician, he had studied medicine at the University of Alcalá, but gave up his studies to enter the world of business for which he does not appear to have any talent, ending up on more than one occasion in a debtor’s prison.  An application to emigrate with his family to America was denied in 1582, but shortly after (1583) he landed a job as a visiting magistrate (juez de comisión real) in the province of Badajoz where the conditions of convicts in a local prison so angered him that he imprisoned the jailer. Ten years later he was given a special commission to investigate the conditions of workers --mostly prisoners-- in the mercury mines of Almadén (Córdoba) run by the powerful German financial/ banker family, the Fuggers. His report on the deprivation of food, clothing and medicine, and of physical abuse was too forthright for the authorities and was shelved, and he was dismissed. His personal circumstances were precarious; poor investments, for example, obliged him to sell the rights to his book. Separated from his wife and living with another woman, he made his way to Lisbon (where Part II of the Guzmán was published in 1604). Four years later, he successfully petitioned to be allowed to emigrate to Mexico, where he published a book on Spanish orthography. After 1615, he disappears from view.


All the interpretations above are persuasive readings of the text, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Individually they see the book as a damning expose of certain of Spain’s ills, whether social or economic; together these interpretations offer a vast picture of a corrupt, ineffective, sterile society obsessed by the idea personal advancement at whatever cost and with no concern for the national good.

Perhaps no one has more succinctly summarised the book than Alemán’s contemporary, Luis de Valdés, in a foreword to Part II in praise of Part I. After remarking on the fame that Alemán has achieved and the elegance of his style, he concludes that the book can serve as a brake to the evildoers, a spur to the good, schooling for the learned, and as entertainment for those who are not learned; in general it is a source of political, ethical and economical lessons...  However, a caveat: we do not know who Luis de Valdés was, and the name is possibly a pseudonym for Alemán himself, in which case they may offer a clue as to how Alemán wanted his work to be read.


In the very brief summary of Alemán’s life above, one detail has been omitted. Alemán came from a converso background. Why bring this up? Because Guzmán de Alfarache also proposes something truly radical, something that could only come from the pen of someone disillusioned by a society that preached the Christian gospel but did not live by it. Someone who was, furthermore, a Christian
**Aleman also wrote a biography of the life of St. Anthony of Padua.
**but whose blood condemned him from the start. Choosing a pícaro allowed him to address the problems of poverty and economic stagnation, choosing a converso allowed him to tackle a particularly controversial social cancer in Spain: limpieza de sangre or purity of blood.

Bjornson,  Richard The Picaresque Hero in European Literature Madison, Wisconsin 1977
Blackburn, Alexander The Myth of the Picaro Chapel Hill: North Carolina 1979
Cruz, Anne J  Discourses of Poverty: Social Reform and the Picaresque Novel in Early Modern Spain Toronto 1999.
Ruan, Felipe Picaro and Cortesano: Identity and the Forms of Capital in Early Modern Spanish Picaresque Narrative and Courtesy Literature: Lanham, Maryland, and Plymouth, UK 2011