Spain’s Picaresque Icons

“How many people must there be in the world who run away from others in fright because they can’t see themselves!”- Lazarillo de Tormes

As an Arab, I’m no stranger to ‘Picaresque’ novels, since the genre formed part of the Arab literature as early as the 10th c., under the name of ‘Maqamat’ (introduced by al-Hamadhani and popularized by al-Hariri). Nevertheless, reading Lazarillo de Tormes turned out to be a wonderful experience for several reasons. This novella, whose author remains anonymous, is generally regarded as the first modern picaresque novel. Of course the word ‘modern’ here sounds completely out of context (it was published in the mid-sixteenth c.), but it was modern in the sense of being the first such novel in Europe ever since the Greco-Roman antiquity.

The anti-clerical sentiment that is stressed throughout the story comes as an eye-opener; it exposes the ills of the religious institution and the hypocrisy that dominated the society. People paraded their religion and preached what they did not follow, all to the rhythm of the Inquisition drums. Speaking of that, this novel was banned by the Inquisition.

Having finished Lazarillo de Tormes, I read another masterpiece from the same genre, namely The Swindler by Francisco de Quevedo, a leading figure in Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’. The novel is another satire based on the life and adventures of a young man called Pablos. Of humble origins and modest education, he stood no chance of ‘advancing’ in a class society without resorting to every kind of trick, and he ended up being the exact opposite of the man he had dreamed to be.

I leave you with some quotes from The Swindler:

“I think that conscience in businessmen is a bit like virginity in whores: they sell it when they haven’t got it any more.”

“I don’t need women to give me advice or make me laugh but just to go to bed with –if they are ugly and intelligent I might just as well be in bed with Aristotle or Sineca.”

“I’m not surprised that with all these guides, we all lost our way.”

PS. The two novels come in one book, a nice edition of Penguin Classics.

Kids eating grapes - Murillo

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