Guzmán de Alfarache: An Epic Novel?
“Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty are battlefields that have their heroes; obscure heroes, sometimes greater than the illustrious ones.” Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Book V, Chptr. 1.
Guzmán de Alfarache is no ordinary protagonist. As narrator of his life, he depicts himself as a shady, scheming delinquent, but one whose subsequent conversion and repentance qualify him to offer guidance and salvation to others.
It is the conclusion reached by the Portuguese censor at the beginning of Part II: ”The author rightly calls [his book] Atalaya (Watchtower**) because a watchtower warns sailors and travelers of danger so they can flee from it, [so] this book can forewarn readers of the many evils in the world to avoid and defend themselves from.”
Human Life is the subtitle of Guzman de Alfarache.
Conversion, here, is not a religious experience as such, but a decision by Guzmán to abandon his errant ways and start being responsible and productive.
Writing from the galley ship to which he has been sentenced, Guzmán offers his life as an “antidote” for the good of others so that they may learn from his mistakes: “At my cost and with my own hardships I uncover dangers and pitfalls so that you do not rush in and harm yourself nor shut yourself in where you cannot find a way out” (2, i, 1 i.e. Part II, Book 1, Chapter 1).
Guzmán’s claim to have suffered for others has further implications: he is also moving towards a new definition of hero. This is not the traditional hero “whose deeds were so great that even if they were mortals they seemed to partake of divinity” (Definition of “hero” by Alemán’s contemporary, Sebastián de Covarrubias, in his dictionary, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española 1611).
There is nothing “great” about Guzmán’s “deeds,” unless we redefine “great” and “deeds,” and that is what Alemán does. Guzmán’s “greatness” is defined by his struggle in life, with his main enemy being himself (2, iii, 3). His “deeds” are his daily battle for survival in a hostile, unpredictable world. His conquest now is not an external display of physical valour but rather self-conquest.
This, Guzmán argues, deserves recognition: “If conquest over oneself is considered a great victory, why don’t we earn applause for overcoming our appetites, our rages and resentments? (I, i, 4). He makes a similar observation later, when he observes that man’s “greatest victory is over his passions” (II, iii, 5).
Recognising that overcoming weaknesses leads to self-knowledge, Guzmán urges his readers to achieve this goal: “Let everyone know him/herself” (Que cada uno se conozca a si mismo (I, ii, 5)
So we have a repentant narrator, a pícaro with “tainted” Jewish blood (i.e. a Converso) to boot, advocating self-knowledge and self-victory, and offering his life story so that others might benefit from his errors and achieve those goals.
This radical challenge to traditional heroic virtues is at the same time a challenge to historic generic categories, particularly to the epic, still the most prestigious literary form in the 17th century.
In Part I, Alemán had written a long book containing many elements of the epic: an extensive journey, storms, unexpected meetings, setbacks, triumphs and failures, and digressive stories. It also contains commentaries on politics, religion, economy, medicine, astrology, navigation, human conduct and so on. All attest to the erudition of the author and make up some of the trappings of the epic, but without valiant physical battles or exotic far-away locations.
Even the structure and some imagery recall the epic tradition. Structurally, Guzmán’s life story is a circular journey –from Seville to Rome via Genoa, and then back to Seville via Genoa—and forms a quest.
The story begins with Guzmán’s shady origins, continues with his search for his origins in Genoa before returning once again to his origins. It is a journey towards self-conquest and to self-knowledge. In common with epic tradition and with his situation as a galley slave, Guzmán uses nautical imagery within the journey metaphor. For example, he becomes a sailor setting out in his barquilla (“little boat”), he says to his reader (94), so that “you might pass safely through the dangerous sea on which you are sailing” (II, i, 1), or “At my cost and with my suffering, I uncover the dangers and rocks so that you don’t rush and tear yourself to pieces or run aground” (II, i, 1) etc.
Alemán sensed he was writing something different, but didn’t know what to call it. His book is at the same time “elevated” (edification of the reader, moralising etc.) and “low” (a pícaro’s life story) which destabilises the traditional separation between high and low literature. The definition he came up with in his introductory commentary on how to read Part I is poética historia (“poetic history”). Poetry here doesn’t mean a composition written in verse and history isn’t a chronological record of events related to institutions or nations.
To understand what Poetry and History meant in the late 16th century, let’s look for a moment at what Alonso López Pinciano (aka El Pinciano), Spain’s most eminent literary theorist of the day had to say.
In 1596 — just prior to the publication of Part I of Guzmán de Alfarache, 1599— El Pinciano published his Ancient Philosophy of Poetry (Filosofia antigua poética) inspired by Aristotle’s Poetica. In it, El Pinciano confirms that a poem need not be written in verse, and that works written in prose might also be considered poems. He gives as one example Heliodorus’s Byzantine novel The Ethiopic History (a tale of the trials of two lovers, it is also known as Theagenes and Chariclea).
But, as El Pinciano also makes clear, The Ethiopic History is also an epic as too are romances of chivalry (not earlier considered epic); they are as epic as Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, or Virgil’s Aeneid. These narratives do not touch on every day concerns but with elevated, “poetic” (i.e. universal) truths. The world they portray is aristocratic, and ordinary people scarcely appear at all.
Classical epics tend to deal with the deeds of famous heroes or the destiny of a nation. Deities or supernatural beings may take an interest or intervene in the action. Romances of chivalry deal with the ongoing battle between good and evil, with larger-than-life knights (inspired by their ladies) engaged in combat with their terrifying adversaries. Here, magic, mystery, enchanters play a significant role.
The geographic scope of the action in these narratives is vast and generally exotic, and the time frame is invariably the distant past. Distance, both geographical and chronological, allows for invention and exaggeration (with characters regularly described as “the best” the “most beautiful,” the “cruellest” etc.) and the creation of myth and legend.
Poetry, then, in the Aristotelian sense painted the world as it might be, a fiction, an invented world rather than the real world. This is where history comes in. History dealt with the particular, with the concerns of everyday life, e.g. hunger, shelter, illness, money. It is the world of here and now, of ordinary people making their way through life. Poetry and history, in the Aristotelian sense did not cohabit.
When Alemán called his Guzmán a poética historia, he was in effect formulating a new genre, one that combined both the universal truths of poetry with the particularity of history. It was an invented world, but had all the appearance of a real or historic world. The word used to describe this is verisimilitude, i.e. having the appearance of being true.
In Guzmán de Alfarache, the poetic truths are contained in the sermons, moralising and edification coming from Guzmán, the narrator (e.g. on the dangers of deception or hypocrisy), history is the reality of daily life as experienced by Guzmán, the character.
What Alemán has done through Guzmán’s journey is absorb poetry into history in roughly the same way that Velázquez does in some of his paintings (e.g. The Topers, The Spinners) or Cervantes in Don Quixote. It’s what we might call “demythification,” i.e. bringing the world of myth and legend, the world of superheroes down to earth, to our time and place.
Like epic and romance heroes, Guzmán undertakes a long journey and is engaged in battles, but his battles have nothing to do with the heroic action of the epics or romances of chivalry but rather with survival, whether at the basic level of feeding himself or navigating his way through an unstable world of pretence and deceit.
However, by aligning his lowly protagonist with the prestige of poetry and by setting the action in the historical present and amongst the low born, Alemán is suggesting in effect a new kind of epic. He does not call it an epic work, but he has written a book with many of the ingredients required of an epic except that his “hero” does not fit the mould of traditional heroes and his hero lives in the here and now, and not in the past.
El Pinciano would approve of much of what Alemán was doing, but he would undoubtedly have cast a very jaundiced eye at the claims of a repentant criminal as hero. For El Pinciano, the epic should still deal with “some noble prince” and its temporal framework should be “neither modern nor ancient.” Alemán’s daring originality lies precisely in these two fundamental matters, in asserting that “a humble and lowly topic (or character, i.e. a pícaro) … could be important, serious and great” (II, I, 1) and in setting the action, not in some far away time where anything is possible, but here and now, in a time verifiable by facts, by historia**
In an anecdote in the final chapter of Guzmán, Alemán (II, iii, 9) might be reminding his readers of how his book should be understood. A noble caballero has commissioned the painting of a horse. The painter, leaving it to dry, inadvertently hangs it upside down. Upon arriving at the studio and seeing it like that, the caballero is annoyed because to him it seems that the horse is playing. Only when the artist puts the canvas the proper way up does the caballero recognise his mistake.
The moral is then clearly set out by Guzmán: such are the works of God, the Great Painter that we often don’t see them for what they are. Of course, the horse is also a symbol of nobility, of the traditional epic world. Seeing it upside down is a means of informing us of new ways of looking at or seeing the world. Alemán has painted an upside down picture of the world, an epic of the street, if you like.
Guzmán de Alfarache was enormously popular when it was published. Together with the simultaneously rediscovered Lazarillo de Tormes, it generated a lot of reaction, more than any other novel of the period, including Don Quixote. It seems, however, that what especially appealed to readers were the adventures of Guzmán rather than the moral messages. Alemán’s disapproval with this reading can be seen when he complains (through Guzmán) that Part I was popularly called El Pícaro instead of Watchtower of Human Life (II, I, 6).
However, Alemán would have been delighted with the view of the well-known 17th-century Jesuit scholar, Baltasar Gracián who set the seal of approval in his work of literary criticism Wit and the Art of Ingenuity (Agudeza y arte de ingenio 1648). He not only called Alemán the “best and most classical Spanish [writer]” (Cervantes is not mentioned at all!!), but listed the Guzmán (he used the subtitle Watchtower of Human Life) amongst the most prestigious of literary forms, the “great epics,” the most outstanding examples of which were the Odyssey, the Aeneid and The Ethiopic History.
Following immediately on these illustrious models, Gracian declares: “Although dealing with a lowly topic (or character), Mateo Alemán … author of the Watchtower of Human Life, was so superior in craftsmanship and style, that he contained within Greek inventiveness, Italian eloquence, French erudition and Spanish ingenuity.“
As far as Gracián was concerned, then, Guzmán de Alfarache was an epic work, albeit based on an obscure hero. Alemán’s delight would undoubtedly be even greater if his poética historia was more widely recognised nowadays as an important step towards a new generic voice: the novel.
Bjornson, Richard The Picaresque Hero in European Literature Madison, Wisconsin 1977
Blackburn, Alexander The Myth of the Picaro, Chapel Hill 1979.
Cruz, Anne J Discourses of Poverty: Social Reform and the Picaresque Novel in Early Modern Spain;Toronto 1999.
Davis, Barbara N “Epic “aunque de sujeto humilde” –A Structural Analysis of Guzman de Alfarache,” in Mary A Beck et al eds. The Analysis of Hispanic Texts, Vol. 1 New York 1976. Pp. 329-39.
Dunn, Peter Spanish Picaresque Fiction: A New Literary History Ithaca and London 1993
Rico, Francisco ed. La novela picaresca espanola: Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzman de Alfarache Barcelona 1967