C is for Cervantes

C has to be for Cervantes in the same way as S would have to be for William Shakespeare if I was writing the A to Z of British Culture.

For Cervantes has become an icon representing high-quality Spanish literature, to the point that the organisation dedicated to promoting the study of Spanish and Spain’s culture does so under his name, the Instituto Cervantes.

The works of Cervantes are comparable to those of Shakespeare in both quality and quantity, and both writers died on the same day, 22 April 1616, a remarkable coincidence.

In 1571, Cervantes fought in a battle in Lepanto against the Turks and was severely wounded. His injuries left him with a paralysed left arm, which in turn earned him the label of “el manco de Lepanto” a rhyming phrase which means “the one-armed man of Lepanto”.

Cervantes is best known for his novel Don Quixote. (I won’t go into any detail here about this book, as you can easily find information about it somewhere else, including a post on my personal blog and a few lines in the chapter Q is for Quijote of The A to Z of Spanish Culture.) He also wrote a collection of “exemplary novels”, (the novelas ejemplares) which included Rinconete y Cortadillo, set in Seville and featuring two rascals who gave the novel its name.

 

Rinconete y Cortadillo by Antonio Muñoz Dergrain

Rinconete y Cortadillo are a pair of pícaros. The closest words in English are probably “rascals” or “rogues”. The word comes from “picaresca” which is a genre in Spanish literature but also refers to an aspect of society known as picaresca española. This is the ability to use your intelligence to con instead of to work. In Cervantes’ novel it’s reflected in the way the two teenagers con and steal from those around them. In modern days, you can see it in the way people slyly skip the queue, ask you for a donation for a charity that doesn’t exist or pocket the tips that someone else left for your grumpy waiter. These acts could also be labeled as petty theft or fraud, but the fact that all of them often come under the label of picaresca española says something about society’s history in Spain.

Cervantes, like all great artists, managed to capture the essence of  society, the underlying thrill of doing things just a little bit beyond written and unwritten laws. Sure, these pícaros were just trying to survive, pretty much like the Lazarillo de Tormes tricked all his masters to ensure his survival, food and a bit of comfort. (The Lazarillo de Tormes, the blind-man’s guide from Tormes, is the protagonist of the first novela picaresca, called by the same name.) The underworld they inhabit was also found outside Spain and reflected in other works of literature, like Oliver Twist. It’s interesting that, even though the two characters were well into their teens, they are often depicted in illustrations as young boys. Are their actions more palatable if we think of them as children?

Rinconete y Cortadillo was placed in the public’s eye before it was edited, as it made its first appearance in the first part of Don Quijote as the inn-keeper gives the novel to the priest. Was Cervantes the first person to create a spin-off?

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