El Buscón (The Swindler, written ca. 1604-08, pub. 1626) is probably Quevedo’s best known work.
It is open to many interpretations and is not always an easy read from the many sordid scenes that might offend modern tastes, and its linguistic complexity, with endless puns, metaphors, underworld slang and contemporary allusions not always clear to us. The following summary, in three parts corresponding to the three books into which it is generally divided, is meant to provide readers with a reasonable idea of the book’s content.
In Book I, the narrator, Pablos, describes his early experiences in Segovia, his birthplace, and his relationship with Don Diego Coronel, his school friend whom he accompanies –as servant– to the University of Alcalá. In the last chapter of Book I, Pablos and Don Diego separate, and Pablos returns to Segovia at the request of his uncle, prior to setting out for Madrid (Book II).
El Buscón. Book I
Chapter 1. Pablos opens with a bold declaration: “I am from Segovia,” followed immediately by an outline of his parents’ “professions.” His father was a barber, thief and jailbird; his mother a witch, a prostitute and procuress. From her father’s surname (de San Juan) and that of her grandfather (de San Cristobal), she is a Conversa, i. e. she is a descendant of Jews converted to Christianity**.
names when converting to Christianity).
Both parents disagree over Pablos’s future, each wanting him to follow his/her line of work. But Pablos has aspirations to become a caballero (gentleman) and persuades them to let him attend school so that he can acquire “virtue” and learn to read and write.
Chapter 2. At school, Pablos quickly ingratiates himself with the teacher, arriving first and leaving last after doing errands for the teacher’s wife. He also strikes up friendship with Don Diego Coronel, son of a gentleman, sharing his lunch with him and entertaining him. Pablos’s favoured position arouses the envy of other students, who taunt him about his parents. Hearing his mother called a whore and a witch by a student, Pablos strikes him with a stone and rushes home to confront his mother. Her ambivalent reply when he asks her if he was his father’s son leaves him disillusioned and full of shame.
Still, Pablos’s friendship with Don Diego is unaffected; he is even invited to dine and sleep at Don Diego’s house.
Two events close the chapter. The first, instigated by Don Diego, is a childish prank which involves calling a certain Poncio de Aguirre, a Converso, by a name sure to anger him: Poncio Pilato (Pontius Pilot). Poncio de Aguirre pursues Pablos into the teacher’s house and is only satisfied when the teacher promises to punish Pablos. After twenty lashes from the teacher, Pablos is so afraid to say “Pontius Pilot” that during prayers on the following day, he inadvertently replaces “He (Christ) suffered under Pontius Pilot” with “He suffered under Pontius de Aguirre.”
In the second episode, Pablos wins the lottery to ride a horse during the Carnival parade. The horse is scrawny and skeletal and during the parade snatches a cabbage from a vegetable stall. The woman owner screams and a fight ensues in which Pablos is pelted with carrots, turnips, egg plants and other vegetables. Frightened by the barrage, the horse rears and Pablos ends up in a pile of excrement. He is so filthy that when the police try to arrest him with the others, they can’t find anywhere clean to grab hold of him. Pablos escapes punishment from his mortified parents by going to Don Diego’s house. There he decides to leave both school and parents and serve as companion to Don Diego to the delight of the latter’s parents.
Chapter 3. Don Diego’s father, Don Alonso, decides to send his son to a boarding school along with Pablos as his companion and servant. The school’s owner, Licenciado Cabra (Master Goat) is a skinny, red-haired, pox-faced individual, with hollow eyes, few teeth, a long thin beard, scrawny neck, skeletal body and fork-like legs. Dressed in a greasy cassock, he looks like the Angel of Death. He starves his pupils, feeding them thin gruel in which they have to search for a turnip or scrap of meat or a chick pea. So deprived of food are the students that there is no toilet in the school because none of them has eaten enough to defecate. One student hasn’t been for two months. Still, Cabra urges them not be greedy and fight over the food because “there is enough for all.” And in any case, “a light dinner is healthy so as not to overwork the stomach.” After a month, Don Diego and Pablos decide to feign constipation and are subjected to an enema, administered by an old hag. Pablos is unable to retain the enema which shoots out all over the woman.
Complaints to Don Diego’s father are to no avail until one of the students dies of starvation. Seeing the emaciated condition of the two “shadows,” Don Alonso withdraws both from the school.
universities at the time. A World Heritage Site now,
it is about 34 kilometres east of Madrid. Quevedo
himself studied at Alcalá, graduating in 1600.
After three months of recovery, Don Alonso arranges for Don Diego to study at Alcalá** Pablos asks to accompany Don Diego as his servant. En route, they stop at an inn run by a “thieving” Morisco (Muslim convert to Christianity) and alive with rogues and prostitutes. They quickly sum up the naive Don Diego, ingratiate themselves with him and end up eating at his expense. A student suggests playing a trick on a miserly old merchant at the inn. Finding a box with candies/sweets in the merchant’s saddlebag, the student replaces the candies with sticks and stones and then defecates on them. He next adulterates the merchant’s wine skin. They all have a good laugh the following day when the merchant discovers the mess. But the last laugh is on Don Diego and Pablos who are embarrassed by the taunts directed at them by the innkeeper and the ruffians.
Chapter 5. Don Diego and Pablos arrive at their accommodation in Alcalá, a house owned by a Morisco. After speaking disparagingly of the large number of Moriscos [in Spain] and of long-nosed Conversos, Pablos gets back to his narrative. The day after arriving, Don Diego heads to class leaving Pablos alone. As a newcomer, Pablos is put upon and taunted because some youths claim that he stinks. He pretends not to care and laughs with his taunters at which point they all begin to clear their throats ominously. Soon he is covered by a bombardment of phlegm. He hurries back to his room, cleans himself as well as possible and then drops to sleep on his bed. When Don Diego returns, a tearful Pablos tells him what happened, whereupon Don Diego offers him some advice: “wake up … [you have to] watch out for yourself because you have no other father or mother here.”
Pablos’s suffering continues that night, when he is woken up by shouts from fellow servants who share his room. They pretend they are being attacked and whiplashed. To avoid being beaten, Pablos hides under his bed. While he is hidden, one of the servants defecates in Pablos’s bed. When the noise subsides, Pablos returns to his bed and falls asleep. The following morning, the excrement-covered Pablos is subjected to further taunts and ridicule, after which he determines to “watch out” for himself and to “begin a new life.”
Chapter 6. Having decided to change his life and look out for himself, Pablos resolves to become the most outrageous of scoundrels. Now, instead of being the victim of others, they become his target. He connives with a student and steals and kills some pigs which have wandered into the yard of the house they are staying at. But more important, he allies himself with the housekeeper (who is also a procuress). Together they fleece everyone in the house and make a lot of money. They manipulate food from the pantry, substituting cheaper meat for choicer fare, and quoting higher prices for food than the amount they paid. They hide half of what they buy for the house and make money in selling it back. They sometimes feign disagreement to convince others of their “honesty” and also commend each other to the house owner for the care they take over the expenses of the house. Don Diego confirms Pablos’s qualities emphasising his trustworthiness and loyalty.
However, scoundrel that he is, Pablos also deceives the housekeeper, awakening in her fear of the Inquisition because she was heard calling out “pío, pío” when feeding two of her chickens. Since “pío” (Pius) was the name of several popes, she was told that she was guilty of sinning against the church. To the relief of the housekeeper, Pablos offers to take the offending chickens to the Inquisition himself. Of course, he keeps them and a third chicken the housekeeper offers him in gratitude. The trick soon becomes public and Pablos and the housekeeper fall out.
Pablos now turns to further tricks for enjoyment. He takes pride in the laughter he provides at the expense of his victims, and the praise he gains for his cleverness. All his tricks (including the final episode in which he persuades members of the law to discard their swords, which he then steals) earn him fame as a crafty trickster.
Chapter 7. Don Diego and Pablos both receive a letter, Don Diego from his father, Pablos from his uncle, Segovia’s hangman. In his letter, Pablos’s uncle informs him that he has just hung his father who, he adds, earned the admiration of all who saw him by his dignified demeanor and the “honourable” way he died on the gallows. It pained him, the uncle continues, to have to quarter him and scatter his remains on the road but as consolation, he understands that the local pastry cooks will be using pieces of him in their cheap cakes!
of Faith” whereby the crimes of accused would be
read aloud, and punishment meted out, ranging
from fines to death at the stake.
The uncle then adds that Pablos’s mother was burned at an auto de fe**, a matter which upsets him because as an officer of the king it dishonours him to be related to a witch! The uncle then informs Pablos that his parents’ “estate” is worth 400 ducats which he can come and claim.
Ashamed by his parents’ embarrassing deaths, Pablos turns to Don Diego, only to be informed by him that his father has ordered him to leave Alcalá and not take Pablos with him. Don Diego offers to set him up with another gentleman, but Pablos refuses: “Sir, I’ve changed and my ambitions are set on higher sights and I want to get a position.” After burning his uncle’s letter so that no one else can read it, Pablos prepares to leave for Segovia, collect his inheritance and flee from his relatives there.
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
Rey Hazas, Antonio ed. Historia de la vida del buscón Madrid 1983