Lazarillo. Cynic, Saint. Knight?

Lazarillo de Tormes: A Cynic’s View of Society.
Lazarillo de Tormes, published 1554, is an extraordinary work, and a must read for anyone interested in Spanish culture. Often called the first picaresque novel (although the word “pícaro” –rogue, scoundrel— never appears in it), it joins La Celestina (pub. 1499) and La lozana andaluza (pub. 1528) in portraying a corrupt, hypocritical, cynical and self serving society, with seemingly no redeeming qualities.

The world Lázaro paints is much like that of La Celestina and La lozana andaluza in that it depicts the every day world of ordinary people, and like them it challenges established literary canons, as well as social and religious assumptions/ attitudes.  Also, like its two predecessors, Lazarillo de Tormes, presents an ambiguous, linguistically unstable reality that heralds the Renaissance spirit of individualism as opposed to the exaggerated stereotypes (e.g. the bravest knight, the most beautiful damsel) evident in romances of chivalry.

Both La Celestina and Lazarillo are set
in Spain; La lozana andaluza, however,
is a portrait of Rome.

Where Lazarillo de Tormes most differs from La Celestinaand La lozana andaluza is 1) the protagonist is male, and 2) it is written as a first person narrative, something many feel to be one of the fundamental characteristics of the picaresque novel.  It’s also a much shorter work than La Celestina or La lozana andaluza, and being a letter, its structure differs from that of the other two works.

The narrating “I” –Lázaro—recounts his life story from the perspective of a grown-up, beginning at childhood and continuing to the narrative present. It is clear from the Prologue that Lázaro feels obliged to reply to Vuestra Merced (Your Honour), an unidentified but evidently social superior, who has written to him earlier to enquire about a certain caso (“matter”).

We know nothing else about that inquiry, and Lázaro’s response begins with his birth and then details his experience in the service of several masters before concluding with his current situation as lowly town crier, and husband of the mistress of the Archpriest of St Salvador in Toledo (i.e. he is a cuckold). It was evidently a popular work when it first appeared since 4 editions appeared in 1554 and an anonymous sequel followed in 1555.

Until 1992, we used to talk of 3 editions,
but in that year a new edition –Medina del
Campo– was unearthed in the walls of a
house in the village of Barcarrota in
Cáceres province, Extremadura.

Perhaps too popular, because in 1559 it was placed on the famous Inquisitorial Index of Prohibited books, and remained unpublished in Spain until 1573 when a mutilated version, Lazarillo castigado (Lazarillo Punished), appeared.

Suppressed in Lazarillo castigado are Tratados 4 and 5 and passages elsewhere obviously considered irreverent by church authorities. The full text continued to be published in other countries –Italy and The Lowlands–but in Spain it was the expurgated version that persisted –1586 Tarragona, 1599 Zaragoza and Madrid.  It was only after the publication of the first part of Guzmán de Alfarache that Lazarillo de Tormes became widely circulated in Spain again. In the next four years 9 separate editions of the Lazarillo were published, which suggests a renewed interest probably derived from the popularity the Guzmán.

In order to clarify the caso, Lázaro takes it upon himself to tell his life story, starting –as he pointedly makes out– not in the middle but at the beginning.  Why?  Because, he says, he wants to show that he has been successful in life and –in a dig at the privileged who have inherited their estates– he wants to demonstrate that he has made it on his own, a bold assertion at the time on the part of a low-born figure, a mere town crier and the local cuckold.

All this has a sharp ironic edge to it, and by giving the fiction the air of historical truth the author uses a clever device for attacking the hypocrisy and corruption of the society Lazarillo was brought up in. That seems to be the implication in Lazarillo’s deliberate rejection in the Prologue of the Horatian formula of beginning in medias res (“in the middle”) which was a poetic mode used in epics, and drawing on Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is also mentioned in the Prologue (as Tulio). In a passage of De Oratore (“On the Orator”) II, XV, 62-63, Cicero –talking of history– observes: “Who is unaware that the first rule of history is to say the truth… the description of the events requires chronological order… and when the events are important and worthy of recording, it is necessary first to offer the purpose and then the description and finally the result…” (Ynduraín). 

Well, we certainly have chronological order, purpose, description and result. But does Lázaro the narrator tell the truth and are the events –the sorry tale of the life of a town crier and cuckold important and worthy of recording?  Not unless they have an ulterior purpose … such as criticising the society of which he is the product.

When Lázaro enters the outside world, he is an innocent child, or so he would have us believe.  By the time he pens his life story he is a cynical hypocrite and opportunist. We hardly need reminding that most (5 of 8) of his masters are members of the church or make liberal use of prayers for their own ends to deceive ignorant people, for whom religion is not much different from superstition. And one –the famous squire of Tratado 3– is obsessed with a totally false and worthless concept of honour, based on opinion rather virtue, and on that scourge of Spanish life in the 16th century: purity of blood.

What Lazarillo de Tormes paints so brilliantly is a world of actors, of masks, of appearances, of deceit, one in which the senses –which should lead to the truth– are shown to be vulnerable and easily deceived. In the Spain of the 16th century that was increasingly affirming the orthodoxy of its Christian message, this was a most uncomfortable and damaging picture, and the Inquisition acknowledged that by placing it on the Index of 1559. So did the editor of the expurgated version of 1573.

Lazarillo and Christianity.
The full title of Lazarillo is La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (“The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of his Fortunes and Adversities”).  The formula La vida de was normally attached to the lives of saints from the Middle Ages (fictional narratives were usually called Historia, Libro, Hechos, Crónica), but there is nothing saintly about Lazarillo’s life.  True, Lazarillo’s name (meaning ironically “helped by God”) reminds us of two Biblical tales: 1) Lazarus the beggar who lay suffering at the gate of the rich man Luke 16: 19-31; and 2) Lazarus of Bethany, brought back to life by Jesus; John 11: 1-44.

And for the 16th century public there was also the association with leprosy (known as the mal de San Lázaro) and the hospitals where they were treated. Of course this Lazarillo is no saint nor is he resurrected; on the contrary he is “infected” and “buried” in a sordid world bereft of values.  Christianity, as it is practiced by Lazarillo’s masters –interestingly all anonymous, but whose very anonymity may represent Christian society at large– kills the spirit.

Lázaro’s barbs are comically irreverent at first: e.g. the blind man’s prayers as sources of income (Tratado 1), the clergyman’s violent defence of the Eucharist bread (Tratado 2). These barbs become increasingly corrosive and finally subversive: e.g. the womanising of the Fraile de la Merced (Friar of the Order of Mercy, Tratado 4), the fraudulent sale of indulgences (Tratado 5), the commercial pursuits of the chaplain (Tratado 6).

It seems that religion is valued only in terms of its financial worth or as a means of ensuring security. The author does not provide any counterbalancing Christian value that might allow us to say that Lazarillo’s masters distort the Christian message; Christ is totally missing in the lives of these individuals, but so too is His message significantly missing in the tale as a possible ideal to aspire to (notably absent, too, are the Virgin Mary, saints or indeed any exemplary figures).  If anything, it is the poor people, e.g. Zaide, Lazarillo’s black stepfather (Tratado 1), and the cotton spinners (Tratado 3), who show some generosity of spirit. Small wonder, then, that in the Age of the Counter Reformation Lázaro’s voice should be suppressed by the Inquisition.

Counter Reformation: A reform movement in the Roman Catholic Church to counteract the growth of Protestantism and to address concerns voiced by Catholic thinkers, e.g. the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus.The reforms were formulated by the Council of Trent, a series of meetings held in the town of Trent in northern Italy between 1545 and 1563)

It was much too uncomfortable, so uncomfortable in fact that nothing similar was able to take root until the end of the 16th century.

Given the disaffected view of society in Lazarillo de Tormes, it has been argued that the author was someone deeply disillusioned by Spain’s spiritual and social malaise. The suggestion has been made that the author was a Converso –a converted Jew or descendant of converted Jews— disillusioned by Christian practices.  Another possibility is that the author was an Erasmist, a follower of Erasmus, critical of the abuses practiced by members of the Catholic church.

Lazarillo and Romances of Chivalry.
But at the same time that the anonymous author was taking aim at the social and spiritual degradation surrounding him, he also parodied the main literary form that buttressed the world of those “who inherited noble estates” (Prologue): the romances of chivalry. Lazarillo’s childhood experience diverges totally from the aristocratic literary world view, the orthodox view, if you like.

Like many chivalric heroes, Lazarillo is handed over to another for his upbringing, but there the similarity ends. The great things that eventually transpire for the chivalric hero are parodied in the day-to-day life of Lazarillo de Tormes. Indeed, the opening lines of the Prologue, which declare that “remarkable things never heard or seen before … should come to the attention of many and should not be buried in the tomb of oblivion,” are a pointed put down of the epic/ chivalric world.

The parody continues in the first words of the letter proper with the pompously signalled genealogy of the narrator: “Know first of all, Your Lordship, that my name is Lazarillo de Tormes, son of Tomé González and Antona Pérez.”  This is not Amadís from some exotic place like Gaul but a local “kid” (as the diminutive termination –illo suggests) from a local river, son of Tomé González (“Tom Jones”) and Antona Pérez (“Antonia Smith”)! 

And the battles Lazarillo is engaged in have nothing to do with the heroic action of Amadís and others but rather with survival, whether at the basic level of feeding himself or navigating his way through a world of pretence and deceit.

The irony intensifies when we realise that from the point of view of the unknown author hiding behind Lázaro’s voice, it was time for the “values” of this corrupt society come to the “attention of many,” and that it was about time to take down that pompous world of “remarkable things never heard or seen before” and show equally remarkable things that had never been heard or seen before: those being the forming or rather deforming of a personality!  

Lazarillo’s author, then, has seized on a defining characteristic of both epic/chivalric and aristocratic life and brought it down to street level. He has given the irreverent voice of a low-born town crier the opportunity to broadcast to the public his own life story.

Cruz, Anne J. ed  Approaches to Teaching Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Tradition  Modern Language Association  2009
Cruz, Anne J Discourses of Poverty: Social Reform and the Picaresque Novel in Early Modern Spain  Toronto 1999
Deyermond, Alan  Lazarillo de Tormes: A Critical Guide  London 1993 (2nd ed revised)
Dunn, Peter  Spanish Picaresque Fiction: A New Literary History London and Ithaca 1993
Maiorino, Giancarlo  At the Margins of the Renaissance: Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque    Art of Survival  Pennsylvania State UP 2003
Rico, Francisco   The Spanish Picaresque Novel and the Point of View  Cambridge 1984  (Translated from the Spanish by Charles Davis)
Ynduraín, Domingo “El Renacimiento de Lázaro,”  Hispania 75 (1992): 474-83.
A Useful Review by Steve Donoghue of a Translation and edition of Lazarillo de Tormes by Ilan Stavans for Norton Critical Editions: