El Buscón. The Converso Angle.
The central narrative of El Buscón 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.
Along the way, 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.
But, important for the story, Pablos is a Converso –an individual tainted with Jewish blood and therefore unclean to cristianos viejos (Old Christians). Furthermore, he was born in Segovia a town noted for its influential Converso community.
The importance attached to purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries cannot be underestimated. It was a national obsession, penetrating every level of society, and creating a social divide between cristianos viejos and cristianos nuevos (New Christians, i. e. Conversos and Moriscos). Still, despite social obstacles, many Conversos had acquired considerable administrative and economic power, e. g. Segovia was said to be run by Conversos. Many also entered the church and some even 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, often hiding their lowly or unclean background by appropriating a Christian or noble name –e.g. Guzmán (as in the case of another Converso pícaro, Guzmán de Alfarache), Mendoza.
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, 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.
However, with the influential Coronels 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 many 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 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 Alcalá. For a lark, the student defecates in a merchant’s saddlebag, a degrading action totally inconsistent with nobility.
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. What Quevedo is saying, in effect, is that there is no escaping one’s blood or in Don Diego’s case, he cannot dissociate himself from his debased Jewish bloodline. “That worthless pícaro” i. e. Pablos is there to remind him, and behind Pablos is Quevedo himself.
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
For those who read Spanish, the following is a very helpful study of Conversos in El Buscon: https://www.waldemoheno.net/Quevedo.html