Lazarillo de Tormes
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
As I inched through William T. Tardy's Easy Spanish Reader (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill) for beginning students of Spanish, I encountered a famous classic that I had never heard of. The reader contains a simplified, condensed retelling of Lazarillo de Tormes, the Spanish novel considered second in importance only to Don Quixote.
Lazarillo de Tormes, published in Spain in 1554 by an anonymous author, is the fictional autobiography of an abused servant boy, from birth to his ironic, uneasy success. The novel started a mania throughout Europe for similar novels, now termed picaresque, that detail the episodic adventures of a servant, petty criminal, or prostitute. The best-known example in English is Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722).
I read the "Lazarillo" section at one sitting, barely stopping for vocabulary. Curiosity drove me from one mini-chapter to the next. Not because the story was so clever, but because it was so estúpido! Lazarillo moves from one terrible master and one stomach-churning beating to the next; at first he becomes more adept at stealing the food he needs to survive and at last he is able to negotiate arrangements for himself. Although the story was compelling, it resembled nothing so much as an extended shaggy dog story. I was not sure what to make of it.
I obtained a very readable English translation of the original, available in Lazarillo de Tormes and the Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels (Penguin Classics), translated by Michael Alpert. Here I found--to my surprise--that Easy Spanish Reader had faithfully reproduced the moronically vicious antics of Lazarillo's masters. The novel, which is very short, does indeed include a series of inane, joke-like episodes, like the sort of silent movie that features a man slipping on a banana peel.
What Easy Spanish Reader could not capture is the irony in Lazarillo. The narrator is certainly not as naive as he might first appear; his humor often consists of understatement or of saying the opposite of what he means. His seemingly naive recounting of the personal habits and abuses of the masters creates a social and economic commentary: the sadistic "religious" blind beggar; the hypocritical priest who starves his servant; the monk abusive in some unspecified, unspeakable way; the nobleman with no assets or income; the fraudulent seller of indulgences.
The anonymous author of Lazarillo was certainly not someone who had ever been a servant himself, but instead must have been an educated, Voltaire-like figure, who constructed a deceptively simple novel to promote social change while advocating nothing directly.
In addition, I believe Lazarillo is a puzzle book in the same sense that Memento is a puzzle movie. The narrator's story is addressed not to a generic reader, but to an unidentified aristocrat who is an offscreen character in the novel. Who is this aristocrat who hears Lazarillo's life story and why is Lazarillo telling it to him? I have formed a solution for myself but will not reveal it here. Instead, I urge you to read the novel and puzzle it out for yourself.
Copyright © 2004 by Heidi Boudro