El Buscón. Book III.
Book II ends with the impoverished hidalgo, Don Toribio, explaining some of the strategies for survival in Madrid. In the first eight chapters of Book III, the action takes place in Madrid. Pablos is introduced to Don Toribio’s companions and learns the art of survival in the capital. In chapter 9, Pablos leaves for Toledo. On the road, he meets and joins a company of actors. Following a period of acting, writing plays and poetry and a frustrating attempt to court a nun, he sets out for Seville, the crime capital of Spain at the time. The last chapter (10) witnesses Pablos’s involvement in … read on!
Chapter 1. Pablos meets some of Don Toribio’s companions as they return from seeing what they could find about town. They are all poorly dressed and employ an old crone to collect rags for them in the streets. Pablos notices that when one arrival takes off his cape to delouse himself, he is almost bare and has attached pieces of rounded cardboard to his waist to simulate breeches. Another has had to stay in bed for two weeks for lack of breeches. When it came to bed time, most didn’t undress because they had next to nothing to take off.
Chapter 2. The following morning, they all get “dressed,” each one mending and darning as he puts his clothes together. Pablos is assigned to a district and accompanied by a guide as instructor. As they walk along, his companion resorts to various disguises and crosses the streets back and forth to avoid people to whom he is in debt. By midday, Pablos is hungry and leaves his friend who is busy scattering crumbs on his beard to give the impression that he has just eaten.
Alone, Pablos runs into an old friend from Alcalá, Flechilla. They embrace and when Flechilla lets on that he is going to his sister and brother-in-law’s house for a meal, Pablos insists he cannot let the occasion go without seeing Doña Ana (the sister). Once there, he seats himself at the table uninvited, saying that he was an old friend of the family, and proceeds to stuffs himself. After leaving the house, Pablos abandons Flechilla. After wandering for a while, he sits on a bench at the entrance of a shop. He overhears two ladies asking about some elaborately embroidered velvet and insinuates himself into the conversation. To impress them and swindle them, he passes himself off as a wealthy gentleman named Don Alvaro de Córdoba. He succeeds in swindling the ladies of a gold encrusted rosary before returning to his quarters. Soon after, his guide arrives bloody and bruised from a beating received from some beggars whom he has cheated of soup.
Chapter 3. A parade of other thieves arrives after a day’s “work.” One brings a new cape which he has swapped for the threadbare one he took with him to a billiards hall. Another appears with a gang of leprous-looking, mutilated boys. He claims to be a religious healer, pretends to scourge himself and makes out that he is wearing a hair shirt. But he is a crook, a card sharp, has fathered six children and has two nuns in the family way! The thieves give the goods they have stolen to the old crone to dispose of. One day, however, when selling some clothes at a house, someone recognises one of the articles and calls a constable. The old woman confesses that she worked for “gentlemen thieves” and the whole school of thieves is jailed.
Chapter 4. Pablos describes life in prison. He sleeps next to the chamber pot and is kept awake by prisoners with diarrhea and constipation using the pot. Pablos complains and an argument ensues between Pablos and another prisoner and the pot is overturned in the dark. The smell is disgusting and the noise wakes up the jailer. Pablos uses some of the money he has to bribe the jailer to place him in another cell. Among the imprisoned in the new cell is a homosexual (El Jayán, the Giant), whose presence motivates Pablos to make homophobic comments about all the other convicts protecting their backsides, even to the point of not farting. Meanwhile, all the older jailbirds are annoyed that Pablos and his group have not paid their dues and that night set about them (one of the victims of the beating is Don Toribio). They avoid further punishment only by promising to surrender their clothes as security for later payment. Pablos escapes by bribing a series of guards and ends up in the house of the warden. There he witnesses an argument between the warden and his “whale-sized” wife who has been accused by a jailer of not being clean.
often adopted by Jews who converted to
Christianity. Cf. Book I, chptr. 1.
Angry, the wife turns on her husband for not beating the accuser and then berates him for having Jewish blood. He replies that the accusation of dirtiness was because she did not eat pork and that is why she was dirty, i. e. that she had Jewish blood. Pablos’s bribes eventually release him from prison, but his companions are exiled from Madrid for six years.
Chapter 5. “I was alone and without my friends” Pablos says after leaving the jail. He changes his name to Don Ramiro de Guzmán and ends up with a room at an inn where a Portuguese and Catalan are also staying. The daughter of the inn is a spirited blonde who is obsessively proud of her hands and shows them off whenever possible. Pablos fancies her “for a bit of fun.” But security matters too, so he sets about to win the daughter’s hand. However, at first she and her mother will have nothing to do Pablos because he is poor, small and ugly.
noble names appropriated by commoners
in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.
So, Pablos arranges for some friends to call at the inn when he is out and ask for Don Ramiro de Guzmán**, “a rich merchant” who had signed contracts with the government. To further impress them, Pablos goes to his room after returning, closes the door and starts to count his remaining 50 ducats many times. The repeated chinking of the coins gives the impression that he is indeed wealthy. The women swallow the deception and now favour him more than the Portuguese (who also fancies the daughter) and the Catalan. These then set about to undermine Pablos, slandering him as a flea-bitten, impoverished, cowardly pícaro. Soon after, Pablos, to press home his case, goes out, rents a mule, disguises himself and, pretending to be Don Ramiro’s steward, returns to the inn and asks for Don Ramiro de Guzmán but adding now the fictitious title “señor del Valcerrado y Vellorete.” The women are ecstatic and, when he returns, reproach Pablos for having concealed his title. All appears to be going well, especially when the daughter agrees to a tryst with Pablos at 1.00 a. m. To get to the girl’s room, Pablos has to climb onto the roof, but in the dark he slips and falls through the roof of a court clerk/ notary living next door. Chaos follows and he is pummeled by the notary’s servants and brother, arrested and tied up in full view of his lady.
Chapter 6. The beatings continue for Pablos until the Portuguese noble and the Catalan intervene at the request of Pablos’s lady. Finding himself pressured, the notary finally agrees to free Pablos for a payment of eight reales. Pablos is embarrassed and, feeling he has lost face by what has happened, decides to leave the inn, but without paying. With that in mind, he makes a deal with a graduate, Brandalagas, and two friends of his, to call at the inn and, saying that they are from the Inquisition, take Pablos and his belongings away.
Then with the help of these newly acquired friends, Pablos purchases stylish clothes, rents a horse and sets out to snag a rich wife. However, he could not find a footman. While admiring a silver crusted saddle outside a saddle shop in the Calle Mayor (Madrid’s main street), he meets two gentleman on horseback. They are heading for the Prado gardens and Pablos –leaving the saddle and telling the shop owner to command his servants to go to the Prado after him– accompanies them. Pablos is careful to ride between them so that no one could know who the two footmen accompanying them belonged to.
In the Prado, the two gentlemen strike up conversation with two young ladies in their coach while Pablos entertains and flatters their mother and aunt. He reveals that he is in Madrid because he is fleeing his parents who want him to marry an ugly, stupid woman because she is very wealthy. “I,” Pablos adds, “prefer a clean woman with nothing to a rich Jewess.” The aunt follows Pablos’s drift. “Ah, good sir … marry a woman of breeding … my niece … only has 6.000 ducat as dowry, but she owes no one anything insofar as blood goes” (Note there are two possible meanings: 1. She is of good Christian stock, a cristiana vieja, or more likely 2. She has paid for a patent of nobility and is therefore “clean.” Numerous Conversos did purchase patents of nobility, provoking a strong reaction in Old Christians).
At this moment, the two young ladies hint at lunch. While the two gentlemen hesitate, Pablos jumps in and suggests they meet the next day at the Casa de Campo and he will bring along food. That evening, Pablos scrounges dinner from the two nobles.
Chapter 7. The next day, Pablos pays to get the lunch prepared, including hiring a nobleman’s butler and servants to bring silverware and serve the meal. The two noblemen and the ladies are impressed and very attentive to Pablos, who is known to them as Don Felipe Tristán. Pablos has his eye on one of the girls, Doña Ana, who is very pretty but not too bright. Her companion isn’t bad looking, but seems more wordly.
Everyone is enjoying the meal when Pablos notices a gentleman and two servants approaching. To his horror, the gentleman is none other than Don Diego Coronel, his old school friend and master who happens to be related to the ladies. In front of everyone, Don Diego expresses astonishment that Don Felipe looks so much like his former servant, Pablos, “son of a barber” in Segovia. The mother confounds Don Diego, saying that Don Felipe had entertained her and her sister and that he was a great friend of her husband. Don Diego begs Don Felipe’s pardon, but can’t help adding: “You’d never believe it, sir, his mother was a witch, his father a thief, his uncle a hangman and he, well he was the worst and most ill-inclined man in the world.” Pablos cover up his rage on hearing such things said about him to his face.
Pablos returns to his house where he meets with Brandalagas and a companion. They encourage him to pursue his goal of marriage and the three while away the evening fleecing some card players using marked cards. (Pablos dresses as a monk who is recovering from illness and fancies a game for a bit of fun!) The three share the winnings.
In the morning, Pablos goes to hire a horse but fails to find one. In the street where Dona Aña lives, Pablos comes across a servant holding his master’s horse while the master, a lawyer, is attending mass. Pablos bribes the servant to allow him to ride the horse so that he can parade in front of Dona Aña’s house. Unfortunately, however, when Pablos smacks the horse, it rears and throws him head first into a puddle. Both Dona Aña and Don Diego witnessed Pablos’s fall and the arrival of the lawyer who berates his servant for letting a “nobody” ride his horse. “No flogged guy has ever felt so much shame,” Pablos comments, looking for every excuse. Dona Aña is sympathetic, but Don Diego decides to spy on Don Felipe and find out all he can about him.
Pablos’s ill-luck doesn’t end there. When he returns to his house, he finds that Brandalagas and his friend have made off with all his money.
And worse is still to come! Don Diego runs into Flechilla (see Book III, chptr. 2) whom he and Pablos knew in Alcalá. Learning more about Pablos from Flechilla, Don Diego arranges with the two gentlemen from the Prado and Casa de Campo lunch to beat Don Felipe (i.e. Pablos) up when the latter goes to pay court to Dona Aña. They will recognise Pablos from Don Diego’s cape that the latter intends to exchange with Pablos. Don Diego meets with Pablos and they exchange their capes (Don Diego has to go along a certain street and doesn’t want to be recognised.) Unfortunately, however, two individuals are on the lookout for Don Diego over a woman, and seeing his cape pummel Pablos! Despite his pain, Pablos perseveres and goes to Dona Aña’s house where he is set upon by Don Diego’s accomplices! He is left with his face slashed and his legs so battered that he can’t stand. The chapter ends with Pablos in bed contemplating his situation: “my face in two pieces, my legs … I couldn’t feel, I’d been robbed, I couldn’t pursue my “friends,” nor think of marrying, nor stay in Madrid, nor even leave.”
Chapter 8. Pablos wakes up seeing the landlady of the place he is staying in at his bedside. Although her face is wrinkled like a dried nut and she is getting on in age, she is an active prostitute. Like the famous Celestina, she also specialises in cosmetics, repairing virgins and “seasoning” maidens (for sex). She is an expert in teaching young girls how to best display their physical charms to attract men and wangle jewelry from them. For example, girls with beautiful teeth should laugh and smile a lot; blondes should wear their hair loose; those with pretty eyes should flash them or coyly lower them.
However, the real reason for the landlady’s visit is to ask Pablos for the rent that he owes her. Unfortunately, as Pablos is counting the money to pay her, some officers raid the house to arrest the landlady and a “boyfriend” she is known to live with. Seeing Pablos in bed and the old prostitute in his room, they assume that Pablos is the boyfriend and give him a hiding before dragging him from his bed. In the meantime, the boyfriend –hearing Pablos’s yells– takes flight. Fortunately, the police catch sight of the fleeing boyfriend and chase him after another guest confirms that Pablos is innocent. Both the old lady and her lover are arrested and imprisoned.
After a week recovering from his beatings, Pablos takes stock of his situation. Having paid for his rent and recovery treatment, he is penniless and takes to panhandling after observing how much money a beggar is making in the streets. From the beggar, Pablos learns how to get money out of people. He pretends to be badly crippled, uses crutches and modulates his voice according to the circumstances. He wears a cross and rosary prominently, uses prayers copiously, and makes a lot of money. From another beggar, he learns the art of flattery, for example addressing a soldier as “captain,” an undistinguished woman as “beautiful lady,” a priest as “archdeacon,” a simple man as “gentleman.” Pablos colludes with the second beggar, exploiting children to beg, even kidnapping children and then claiming the reward for finding them. As a result, Pablos becomes very rich, at which point he decides to leave Madrid and head for Toledo “where I knew no one and no one knew me.”
Chapter 9. On the way to Toledo, Pablos runs into a troupe/ company of actors, one of whom happens to have been an acquaintance (unnamed) of his in Alcalá. Thanks to the acquaintance, Pablos is allowed to travel with the group to Toledo. On the way, he takes a fancy to one of the actresses whose husband –for a price– readily makes way for Pablos to flirt with her. The two talk a lot but put off “action” until they get to Toledo.
After hearing Pablos recite some lines he remembers from his childhood, the actors invite him to join them. Since the acting life appeals to him and the actress is very appealing, Pablos signs a contract for two years with the troupe manager. He also turns his hand at writing plays and verse and becomes so proficient that he makes quite a name for himself. Adopting the name of Alonso, he becomes prosperous writing poetry for blind men to recite, or for young lovers to praise their ladies’ hair or eyes or hands.
Pablos acquires a well-furnished house and even contemplates managing his own troupe. However, as fate would have it, following a comical episode in which a young Galician maid takes as true some lines she overhears Pablos reciting aloud (about being attacked by a bear!), the manager of the troupe is arrested and jailed. As a result, the company breaks up and Pablos goes his own way, intending to have a good time.
With the money he has made, he starts paying court to a nun**, or as he puts it he became “a lattice-window lover.”
Pablos assures the nun that he has abandoned the acting profession for her, and seeks the friendship of the abbess or priest or sacristan to facilitate his liaison with her. However, falling for a nun is like “being in love with a caged thrush, if she speaks, and if she doesn’t say anything, it’s like falling in love with a portrait.” And so, realising that her “favours are only touches which go nowhere,” Pablos decides to leave for Seville, taking with him 50 escudos he has swindled from the nun by promising to raffle some silk stockings, little amber trinkets and candies/sweets she has made.
Chapter 10. En route to Seville, Pablos makes money using loaded dices and marked cards to fleece unwary victims. Addressing the reader, he lists some of the schemes swindlers engage in and offers advice to the uninitiated on how to detect the strategies employed. He also reveals some of the slang used by cheats: e.g. “To make a killing” means taking all the victim’s money, a “reverse” is to cheat on one’s playing partner, “white” refers to someone gullible.
In Seville, Pablos settles in an inn where he runs into yet another of his fellow students from Alcalá, Mata (from matar: “to kill”, suitably named since he is a cutthroat and specialist in slashings). Pablos is invited to dinner at Mata’s place, where Mata lends him a sword, changes the way he is dressed and lends him a large knife so that he will not look like a queer when his criminal pals arrive. After initial reserve, the group accepts Pablos, and in the ensuing drunken orgy they propose a toast to Pablos’s honour! Conversation soon turns to swearing and to recalling members killed by the law. A parodic mass is celebrated in their honour, after which they all set out to hunt policemen. A drunken Pablos accompanies them and they all attack and kill two constables, after which they flee to the cathedral to seek sanctuary.
They all have a good time in the cathedral, especially with the arrival of prostitutes, one of whom (named Grajales) becomes Pablos’s “woman.” Despite constant police surveillance of the cathedral, Pablos and Grajales manage to escape and leave for America, but things go worse there. Pablos ends by promising a second part and cautioning that no one will improve his lot by simply moving places; he must also alter his life and ways.
Alpert, Michael (transl.) Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes, The Swindler (El buscón) Penguin Classics, 1969
Rey Hazas, Antonio ed. Historia de la vida del buscón Madrid 1983