El Buscón. Book II.
Book I ends with Pablos preparing to return to his home town, Segovia, having received news from his uncle, Segovia’s hangman, of the death of both his parents. In the first three chapters of Book II, we follow Pablos on the road from Alcalá to Segovia. En route, he meets absurd individuals who are really grist for Quevedo’s satire. After witnessing a debauched banquet hosted by his uncle, an embarrassed Pablos sets off for Madrid. Along the road, he runs into an impoverished hidalgo (minor noble) from whom he learns something of the strategies for survival in Madrid.
Chapter 1. Pablos sets off for Segovia, leaving behind “the best life I ever had.” On the road, he runs into an arbitrista (armchair politician/ economist) who has some ridiculous plans he wants to present to the king on how to capture the Belgian coastal city of Ostend** (by sucking up the water around Ostend with sponges!).
Continuing on the road, Pablos comes across a mathematician who has some absurd ideas on sword fencing based on mathematical angles. Both episodes are digressions, the first to mock some of the wild suggestions offered to King Philip III in Spain’s struggles in the Netherlands, the second to ridicule a recently published book on fencing by an enemy of Quevedo. They add nothing to Pablos’s narrative.
Chapter 2. On the road to Madrid, Pablos mulls over the matter of his honour and virtue, which are difficult to attain given his parents’ disrepute. So, he intends to conceal his background and strive to be honourable so that people will think highly of him, all the more so since he has had no honourable/ virtuous model to imitate. The rest of the chapter continues in the same vein as Chapter 1, in this case ridiculing the ignorance of an elderly priest who fancies himself a great poet.
Chapter 3. Begins with Pablos reading a proclamation against poets, satirising poor verse, obscure language, cliches, plagiarism etc. After finishing the proclamation, Pablos leaves Madrid for Segovia. Almost immediately he meets a self-promoting soldier who complains bitterly of a lack of appreciation and rewards in Madrid for his services. He boasts about his exploits, shows off his wounds and flourishes papers attesting to his bravery, all a load of lies.
At this point they run into a gaunt, bearded hermit astride a donkey. At the inn where they are staying that evening, the hermit proposes a game of cards (since “laziness is the mother of vice”). Pablos and the soldier think they are on to a good thing, especially when the hermit claims not to know how to play the game. The soldier suggests they play for a little money, and all three agree. At first, the hermit lets them win but ends up bagging all their money. Pablos spends the night trying to figure out how to get his money back (he is unsuccessful, but the hermit does pay their accommodation).
Continuing their journey, Pablos and the soldier fall in with a Genoese** banker, “one of those antiChrist/ robbers of Spain’s finances”
As they enter Segovia, Pablos sees pieces of his father on the roadside! Soon after leaving the soldier and the Genoese, Pablos sees his uncle whipping along a group of half-naked men. Pablos is embarrassed when his uncle recognises him and rushes to embrace him, especially since Pablos has just passed himself off as “a very important gentleman…. I thought I would die of shame.” Only the thought of his inheritance keeps him in Segovia, so he accompanies his uncle to the latter’s home.
Chapter 4. Pablos’s uncle lives in a miserable room in a water seller’s house next to the abattoir. The uncle has invited some friends to a grotesque banquet which turns out to be a wild occasion of debauchery and drunkenness. The food they eat includes pastries containing human flesh, which occasions prayers for the souls of those they are about to consume!
They end up vomiting over each other and flooding the floor with urine. Pablos can hardly hide his shame at the spectacle. He is so scandalised that he is more determined than ever to avoid such company and seek out “more distinguished people and gentlemen.” Pablos finally gets his inheritance, but only 300 ducats instead of the promised 400. He takes off and stays a night at an inn, leaving a note for his uncle telling him not to try and find him because it is important that no-one finds out that they are related.
Chapter 5. Pablos heads for Madrid–”where no one knew him”– riding a rented donkey as if he were a gentleman!
hidalgos were a discredited lot, ridiculed for their
pretensions and their perceived uselessness in society.
On the way, he meets a seemingly well-dressed hidalgo** walking along the road. Pablos greets him and assumes that the hidalgo’s coach is following behind. Wondering what coach Pablos is talking about, the hidalgo turns around, but in doing so his breeches/ pants fall down. Disillusioned, Pablos quickly realises that the hidalgo is poverty stricken. The hidalgo walks alongside Pablos for a while holding his breeches up with one hand. Finally, he asks Pablos if he can ride on his donkey. Helping the hidalgo onto the donkey, Pablos sees –under the cape that his companion is wearing– that the breeches have a hole revealing the hidalgo’s bare bottom.”All that glitters is not gold,” the hidalgo comments, before launching into his family history. He has noble blood but is impoverished and heading to Madrid because “you can’t be somebody if you haven’t got anything.” All he has to his name is his title Don and he can’t find anyone to buy it from him. His full name is impressive: Don Toribio Rodriguez Vallejo Gómez y Jordán but empty of significance. In Madrid he hopes to prosper because that’s the place where flattery and quickwittedness open doors.
Chapter 6. The hidalgo, Don Toribio, takes up the narrative, describing the kind of life he and his companions live. They survive using their wits to create a world of appearances. For example, their places are littered with meat bones, fruits peelings and feathers which they have scrounged at night in the streets so that if they have a visitor they can explain offhandedly that they have had some friends in for a meal and the servants haven’t cleared up. If they strike up an acquaintance with someone, they always turn up at his house at mealtime.
They never turn down an invitation. If the host has already begun to dine, they ask if they can share out the food and whilst doing so they compliment the cook and swear it would be an insult not to taste the food themselves. Failing all that, they can always go to a convent and get a bowl of soup which they “don’t eat in public but out of sight.”
Their clothes are all patched up with only their capes for cover. Even so, they hate daylight because people might see the patches when they climb stairs or mount a horse; they even avoid going out on windy days. They recycle their clothes as much as possible, capes being cut down for breeches and so on.
To keep up appearances and be seen, they must ride a horse once a month (or a donkey a pinch) and ride a coach once a year even if it’s only on the back. If they manage to ride inside they must lean out of the window to talk to friends and acquaintances. They always lie making out that they are friends or relatives of some nobles but always making sure that these are either dead or far away. They don’t fall in love unless there’s something in it for them.
Don Toribio’s world of deception, lies and appearances appeals to Pablos, and his companion obliges by promising to introduce him to his companions in crime.
For an introduction to El Buscón, click here.
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
Velázquez’s Los Borrachos: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15587745