Quevedo. El Buscón. Introduction.

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 to a more universal preoccupation with time, love, immortality, moral responsibility, human conduct etc.

Portrait of Quevedo.

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), establishes the basic paradigm for 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.

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 (converted Jews and their descendants)? Or is it no more than an exercise in verbal wit with no cohesive structure and no edifying purpose?

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.

He aspires to move up the social ladder, a goal that is denied him. Along his journey, he meets students, innkeepers, merchants, beggars, drunkards, hidalgos (minor nobles), Conversos, 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.

There are some details about both Pablos and Quevedo that might help our understanding of the book. Pablos is the son of repellent parents who aspires to better himself through education and the practice of virtue. In addition, he is a Converso, an individual tainted with Jewish blood and therefore unclean.

The importance attached to purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) in Spain, especially Castile in the 16th and 17th centuries cannot be underestimated. It was an obsession, hanging like a threat over Conversos (and Moriscos), penetrating every level of society, and creating a social divide between Cristianos viejos (Old Christians) and Cristianos nuevos (New Christians, these were the Conversos and Moriscos). Nevertheless, statutes drawn up by institutions to exclude Conversos from their circle were often disregarded, and implementation of the statutes frequently ignored.

A corner of the judería in Segovia.

As a result, many Conversos acquired considerable administrative and economic power, e. g. Segovia was said to be run by Conversos. Many also entered the church, the religious orders (e. g. St. Theresa of Avila) and the Inquisition (e. g. Tomás de Torquemada, the first Inquisitor General). A significant number of Conversos also married into nobility.

Quevedo was an aristocrat and Cristiano viejo, and for him and many others, Conversos and upstart commoners were a threat to traditional social hierarchy.

The appropriation of a noble name –e.g. Guzmán,
Mendoza– by commoners was not unknown in
Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries

Pablos’s descent into thieving, swindling etc. and his failure to ascend the social ladder is Quevedo’s response to that threat to social stability.

Pablos’s departure from Segovia is an attempt to escape his birth and go to places where he is not known and therefore begin anew; the different names he adopts have a similar aim of covering his past.

But Quevedo could not allow Pablos to transform himself into a gentleman and so pursues him relentlessly. Indeed, we might say that Quevedo is Pablos’s greatest enemy because he does not allow Pablos his own voice.

To deal with Pablo’s pretensions of upward social mobility, Quevedo subjects him to a variety of humiliating experiences: e. g. beatings, falls from horses, a volley of phlegm, being covered in feces etc. As long as Pablos remains within his social sphere he prospers financially (e. g. he makes good money as a beggar or actor), but when he aspires to marry above his station he is brought down to earth, literally (he falls off the horse he is riding when parading in front of his lady’s house (Book III, chptr. 7). Socially, then, Pablos is a nobody surviving in a world of nobodies, condemned by his heritage.

But Pablos is not the only Converso in El Buscón. Indeed, there are several, but one is especially interesting: Don Diego Coronel, Pablos’s boyhood friend and master at the University of Alcalá.

The Coronels in fact existed historically and were an example of a wealthy Jewish family that had been ennobled, in this case by none other than Queen Isabella, when converting to Christianity in 1492.  In Segovia, the Coronels were a powerful dynasty, but for a Cristiano viejo such as Quevedo, ennobled Conversos were symptomatic of the subversive and unacceptable changes and the weakening of traditional social order that he saw around him.

With the influential Coronels, then, Quevedo had to be more discreet in his attack. Outwardly Don Diego has the airs of a gentleman: well dressed, carries a sword, rides a horse and has servants. But his friendship with the son of a thief and prostitute would have been so unlikely in reality that Quevedo’s aim was surely to contaminate Don Diego and ridicule the family name by association. It was Quevedo’s way of reminding the Coronels that they were in fact unclean despite their social status in Segovia. Their nobility was purchased and money was contrary to aristocratic ethos.

There are other instances where the Coronel name is ridiculed. Don Diego’s early education is in a local school run by a Converso, the licenciado Cabra (Master Goat, Book I, chptr. 3), a ludicrous figure who subjects his students to all kinds of humiliation. Don Diego and Pablos suffer the indignity of an enema, so badly applied to Don Diego that it shoots up all over him. 

Later (Book I chaptr. 4) the Coronel name is debased when it is appropriated by a student who claims to be a relative of Don Diego when the latter and Pablos stop at an inn en route to Alcala. For a lark, the student defecates in a merchant’s saddlebag, a degrading action totally inconsistent with noble action.

Don Diego and Pablos part company in Book I, chapter 7, but meet again in Book III, chapter 7, precisely when Pablos is courting a young noble lady, Doña Ana, who happens to be Don Diego’s cousin. In the same way that Pablos’s past constantly catches up with him, so too is the reader reminded of the past association of Don Diego with a low-born scoundrel.

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 beatings or 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.

2Quevedo 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, it is a verbal 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, a 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, 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’s 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.

A traditionalist or conservative to the core, in 1628  he vigorously opposed the move to make St. Theresa of Avila (a Conversa) co-patron saint of Spain alongside St. James (Santiago).  There was personal interest in Quevedo’s passionate defence of St. James: he himself was made a knight of the Order of St. James, one of Spain’s most prestigious religious-military orders, in 1617.

Quevedo 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 – [2], Dominio público, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27702609