Review of Lazarillo de Tornes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels

Lazarillo de Tornes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels continues my study of the titularly named genre. Two young boys follow paths to dissolute lives. Lacking the upward mobility available in economies that weren’t primarily based upon slave labor extraction of mineral resources, their birth in the lower classes itself made certain things impossible in the way of the Spanish World. Apprenticeship would thus not take the form of tutelage under craftsman or artisans but among some of the most dejected members of the lumper-proletariat.

Lazarillo is the tale of a 14 year old young man whose unfortunate mothers leads her to give away her soon to an itinerant blind man in order to be relieved of the effort of caring for him. The seemingly affable despite his misfortunate loss of eyesight demeanor quickly drops once they are far from the house and walking on the way to the next city. The blind man demands him verbally and hits him of the head with his staff. he further abuses him and as he is the one who holds all of the coins received while begging is stingy with how he feeds his ward. Lazzarillo finds a number of ways to out guile the clever man. But he does learn a lot, and through their conversations Lazarillo comes to see a much more skeptical view of the Spanish Catholic’s religious beliefs and practices. They break their relationship, however, after a number of altercations following the blind man’s discovery of the ruses. After Lazarillo picks off enough cash to make it on his own for a while he has the blind man unwittingly jump into a pylon and then leaves him bloody and concussed to look after himself.

He briefly comes under the employ of a provincial noble that is on his way to become a student at a school for the elite. As they enter an inn to find shelter for the night, they are both quickly worked over by a group of smooth talking con-men. Lazarillo only realizes their deceit after his master is forced to pay the bill for all of their food and drink and he has lost all of his money gambling. He is dismissed and is thus forced to begging. It is while he is walking the streets of Maqueda singing pleas that he’d learned while working with the blind man that a priest stops in front of him. He listens briefly and then tells him he is now under his employ and to follow him. His next master is not physically violent like the last, but is strict and like the blind man is stingy with food. As such, like before, he decides he mush rely upon deception in order to supplement his meagre caloric intake. The task of stealing from the bread box is no Oceans affair, but the length at which he carries it on is a testament to his cunning. The descriptions of the Priest getting so enraged over a few crumbs being removed from the bread box and the demands of austerity placed upon Lazarillo is another not so subtle criticism of the Church.

Without getting into every little twist and turn of the novel, I’ll just state that additional deeds of deviousness occurs. The writing style has a a faced based economy of language. It develops quickly from the tradition of writing about a young boys development to a series of deceits enacted upon superiors because of the belief that allegiance to the self is the only true allegiance that one should have if one wants to move forward in the world. The book ends with the patina of a dignified life, and whether the question of whether or not such self-deceit is worth the cost of no longer having to wonder from where he’ll next get his meal and a place to rest his head.

The Swindler is the other story contained in the Penguin Classics pairing. It’s longer the Lazarillo and does not depict a similar transition away from criminality to semi-respectability. As the book’s title, a reference to the protagonist, suggest the plot revolves around someone that is essentially bad. His badness, however, mainly accelerates as a result of his choices to accompany people. This rogue’s gallery isn’t the only one unfavorably depicted, the Church’s isn’t kind to them either. They are, alternately,  schemers, pederasts, tight-wads, delusional in their adherence to certain ungodly practices.

The witches and heretics fair little better. In the opening of The Swindler, the protagonist is advised by his witch, whore of a mother’s Moorish thieving non-Church sanctioned husband: “If you’re crafty, you can get away with anything.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, many years after this exchange he is hung and dismembered by his mother’s brother the hangman. Seeing these pieces hung around the entrance to the city walls as as he comes home to receive his inheritance, shocks him. But he was going to carry on.

The confessor of this tale does not merely seek to shock and amaze with grotesque scenes, he advises that this is also a lesson book, if one so looked at it, to live a life based based upon deceit, swindles, subterfuges, lies, all around craftiness. Unlike Lazarillo, the writer’s character does not always have at least some of our sympathies. From unfortunate circumstances he adopts the wrong lessons and applies them in such a way that while getting admiration from a rotating band of conniving thieves he obtains a correct opprobrium from the well to do class which he aspires by false pretenses to marry himself into. A blow to the head leaves him with a telling disfigurement the exacerbates his willingness to commit criminal acts and live a debauched life. At this point, in no uncertain terms, he is a man that embodies a dangerous form of criminality. He takes a view similar to that of a N.W.A. anthem and goes on a drunk spree that results in a number of complications he must now flee with his whore lover.

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