Thursday, May 15, 2014

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Exemplary Novels (1613)

The biggest and most blatant digression in Don Quixote is a story called "The Ill-Advised Curiosity."  In it, there are two friends, one of whom gets married to a beautiful, virtuous, &c woman.  However, he starts worrying that under duress, she might not be as virtuous as he wants her to be, so he asks his friend to try to seduce him.  Friend sez dude, forget it, that's a terrible idea, but he's persistent, and eventually, the friend reluctantly agrees, with predictable results.  I liked it; though predictable, it was a fun story, and I think the moral was a good one.  So, I decided to read Cervantes' Exemplary Tales, which are meant to be basically the same sort of stories as that one.  The results?  Mixed, let's generously say.

First, there's "The Lady Cornelia," a story the point of which I truly do not understand.  There's a beautiful woman who has been kept cloistered for fear she'd be sullied, but a noble sees her and woos her and her brother is worried that he's seduced her and abandoned her, but then it turns out, no, his intentions were totally honorable, he had good reason to postpone the marriage, and then after a few extremely minor and easily-overcome obstacles, they are married.  The end.  Seriously.  There's no meaningful conflict and no apparent moral or anything.  It's very strange.  I guess it's just there to exalt honorable behavior?  It's not very interesting, but given how horrible SOME of these stories are, the fact that it's all about nice people being nice is, in retrospect, something of a relief.

Second, "Rinconete and Cortadillo."  This is about a couple of youths who make their living through petty crime--the one is a pickpocket, the other a card sharp--who come to a big city and join a crime organization that robs people and inflicts various violences for money.  The focus on the story is on their hypocrisy in acting all pious and religious-like, and the humor of them having a bureaucracy like any other business.  It's amusing enough, but it doesn't really end so much as just trail off indeterminately.

Third, "The Licentiate Vidriera; or, Doctor Glass-Case."  This is a peculiar one for sure.  Rodaja is a student who ends up falling in with a military captain who says young Johnny you're a fine young man would you like to march along behind a military band?  So Rodaja goes along, and it seems apparent at first that this is going to be an anti-military story, as Cervantes enumerates a lot of problems that go along with the army.  But then, he just leaves (not having committed to anything), and wanders around Italy for a while in a mini-travelogue.  THEN, he goes back to finish up his studies.  A woman falls in love with him, and when he doesn't return her affections, she tries to make him by giving him an enchanted quince.  It does not quite work as intended, though; he eats it and has a fit, and when he recovers, he is under the persistent delusion that he is made of glass, and insists that everyone should keep their distance lest they break him.  While in this state, he delivers various allegedly witty judgments on the nature of various professions; this is what makes up the bulk of the story.  Then, he is cured, and he finds that it's hard to go back to his usual work with everyone remembering his previous eccentric behavior, so he joins the army.  And that is that.  I thought the story's general weirdness and fractured structure was interesting, but I did not find it as funny as I was probably meant to.

Fourth, we have "The Deceitful Marriage."  It's a short story that basically serves as a jumping-off point to the one following.  A guy named Campuzano marries a rich woman, because RICH!  But then, she convinces him that they should leave their house for a while and let her friend live there so she can trick the man she wants to marry into thinking that it is, in fact, her property, thus ensnaring him.  You will NEVER GUESS the trick ending.  The story is framed by Campuzano telling his woes to a friend, after which he shows him a dialogue he supposedly heard while laid up in the hospital, leading to…

…"Dialogue Between Scipio and Berganza, Dogs of the Hospital of the Resurrection in the City of Valladolid, Commonly Called the Dogs of Mahudes."  A dialogue between dogs?  How is THAT not interesting?  The two of them note at the beginning that it's weird that they can suddenly talk, given that dogs are dumb animals--and yet, here they are, and Berganza tells Scipio his life story, a picaresque which certainly owes a certain amount to Apuleius's Golden Ass.  It's quite interesting; I particularly enjoyed a part about the "real" nature of witchcraft (in spite of the fact that, as we know, belief in "witches" led to some very bad ends).  Unfortunately, this story also contains a certain amount, by which I mean a fairly considerable amount, of racism.  First, there's a part about how awful gypsies are (not surprising, but still not very savory--I note in passing that there's a part in Tom Jones where our hero meets some gypsies; notwithstanding the broken English Fielding gives them, they're not dumb and basically sympathetic--no such luck with Our Miguel!).  What's much worse, however, is the bit about Moroscos (Moors who had been made to convert to Christianity).  Now, you sort of expect this kind of racism, to one extent or another, from European writers of the time.  Not everyone can be as preternaturally enlightened as Ariosto.  Still, you sort of hope--maybe irrationally--that, having converted, the Moroscos would be considered okay, given that we all profess to believe in the transformative power of Christ and whatnot.  We might especially expect some level of tolerance from Cervantes--Don Quixote has problematic moments, but it is purported to be based on the work of a Moor, after all.  But…not so much.  Cervantes describes them in terms that are basically identical to anti-Semitic tropes: secretive, hoarding money, breeding like crazy, sucking the life from reg'ler folks.  It's not pleasant, and, given the history of the twentieth century, the following is especially chilling:

Our commonwealth has most wise and zealous champions, who, considering that Spain produces and retains in her bosom such vipers as the Moriscoes, will, with God's help, provide a sure and prompt remedy for so great an evil.

Awful stuff.  As it happens, the "remedy" in this case was "only" forcible expulsion from the country, but it's still very bad; I know we have to consider historical context etc, but shit like this does not endear Cervantes to me (and yes, this is Cervantes himself speaking; he's very fond of using characters as mouthpieces for his ideas, and that is very definitely the case here).  But aside from that (Mrs. Lincoln) the story is quite good!

Next: "The Little Gipsy Girl."  You might expect the worst, but I was unexpectedly taken with this story.  The title character, named Preciosa, is all beautiful and virtuous and can she REALLY be a gypsy?  A young nobleman named Andrew falls in love with her, but she insists that he join the gypsy troupe and wait two years before he can marry her, which he agrees to.  So this goes on for a while, and it will come as no surprise that Preciosa comes from surprising parentage, and then everyone is happy.  Okay, so it's a fairly simple plot, but it's quite interesting in the telling.  As you would expect, Cervantes' treatment of the gypsies is somewhat problematic, but it's more ambivalent and less out-and-out condemnatory than you might expect.  He appears to at least sorta kinda partially admire their freewheeling ways, and he grudgingly admits that maybe they're not ALL bad.  And in the end, they aren't punished in any way; they just go about their business.

Moving on, we come to "The Generous Lover."  It's about a guy who's captured by Turks and he thinks the woman with whom he's smitten is dead but then she isn't and there's various plotting amongst various other people who are also smitten with her, and then they end up married.  It must be said, the protagonist is kind of questionably sympathetic here: he thinks the woman he wants is going to marry some other dude, so (without any evidence that she's actually into him or anything) he starts ranting about how the other guys sucks and is a jerk, and one cannot help but think: no, the evidence sorta kinda suggests that the jerk is YOU.  Just saying.  Then at the end--because he is, after all, the GENEROUS lover--he magnanimously announces that he's giving the girl to his rival, because it's proper and shit.  So that's kind of dubious, but he DOES earn points by going "no wait, what am I saying, I can't just "give" her; she has agency (unless her PARENTS want her to do something)," which, aside from that last part, is more enlightened than one might have expected.  Still, I found the story as a whole pretty dull.

Next is "The Spanish-English Lady."  It's about a young Spanish girl who gets captured by English invaders, and the weird thing about the story is how this seems to pretty much be cool with Cervantes.  The family that subsequently brings her up turns out to secretly consist of Catholics, so that's great and everything, but still.  They KIDNAPPED this girl.  JEEZ LOUISE!  And she's SPANISH.  Where's your national PRIDE, man?!?  And then, when her real parents inevitably appear, everyone's basically cool with it.  Weirdness notwithstanding, though, I actually rather liked this story.  Some nice piratical stuff, death and unexpected (well, not really, but you know) resurrection, and like that.  Pleasant enough.

Next, "The Force of Blood."  Now, naturally stories written five hundred years ago are going to have some elements that do not accord with our modern sensibilities, but this is one of those cases where it's reeeeeally hard to bridge the gulf.  There is a poor but noble family.  A dissipated rich kid takes a fancy to the teenage daughter and so kidnaps and rapes her (which comes as a surprise, since rape doesn't generally happen in Cervantes--virtuous nobility is preserved).  She returns to her family, and he goes on his merry way.  Turns out she's pregnant, and when she has a son her parents pass him off as a cousin.  When a man on a horse accidentally hits him, he takes him home so a doctor can cure him, and whaddaya know, the woman recognizes the house as the place where she was raped.  Turns out the rapist is the son of the man who saved the kid, and everyone gets the swell idea that she should marry him, which they do, and they're both EXTREMELY happy.  The end.  I can't help feeling like commentary on my part would be superfluous.  Still, it could be worse, as we'll see...

Okay, so now we have "The Jealous Estramaduran."  There's an old rich guy who takes in into his head to marry a teenage girl, and because he's rich and all, that's NO PROBLEM for him.  But he is wracked with suspicion, so he secludes her in a tower with only women to keep her company.  CUE LESBIAN ORGY.  If only.  But in fact, a young man becomes consumed with curiosity about her beauty, and schemes on how he can get to see her.  This sounds like the premise for a Molière-esque farce (acknowledging that in fact Cervantes pre-dated Molière), but actually it's much more peculiar than that.  The guy's plans to get inside are reasonably clever (even if his manipulations of people to do so are less than lovable), but when it happens everything just kind of fizzles out.  They do not fall in love or even have sex, but the old guy THINKS they did, and as a result, he DIES, and the woman joins a nunnery and the man just sort of wanders off.  It's quite the anti-climax, is what it is.

Penultimately, we come to "The Illustrious Scullery-Maid."  Um.  There are two young men who represent to their fathers that they are going to off to join the army, but instead, they decide to just stop and dick around for a while.  One of them quickly falls in love with this mysterious scullery maid who's all beautiful and virtuous and the usual, and who won't give him the time of day (meanwhile, the other is obsessed with tuna fisheries.  It's a little weird).  The story moves along kind of dully and aimlessly, and you're thinking, okay okay, let's reveal her noble birth and then marry the two of them off, get ON with it won't you, when suddenly FUCKING SHIT WHAT IS THIS?!?  See, the scullery maid had been dropped off with this innkeeper by a MYSTERIOUS WOMAN, and no one knows what's what, until the fathers of our two young men show up, and one of them goes, oh don't worry, I can tell what happened.  And I'm her father, but DO NOT WORRY about the honor of her mother (that was definitely our main concern, right?), 'cause I can tell you what happened.  See, she was a noblewoman who was widowed, and she was living out in the country.  I was a hunter and I got lost and came upon the estate, and went in to try to get help, and I found this woman and gosh darn it she was so hot I just HAD to rape her, not omitting to warn her that she shouldn't cry out lest she be found and her honor known to be sullied.  And no one has the LEAST reaction to this story other than, oh, okay, that satisfies OUR curiosity!  Thanks!  And JESUS FUCK THE FUCKING CHRIST CERVANTES WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU THIS IS A HORRIBLE STORY.  Even granted changing social mores, I'm still PRETTY DARN SURE that rape, even if treated somewhat casually, was generally not quite THIS A-okay with people.  At least in "The Force of Blood" there's some sense that the dude was WRONG to do what he did.  Whereas here?  Ha ha!  No problem!  What IS this shit?  There was NO rape in Don Quixote, I'll tell you that much.  But now there's…this thing.  Ugh.  Oh, and the one kid and the scullery maid get married, but it feels like a total afterthought, and since even by the standards of these stories she's not much of a character…it would not be possible for anyone to care even a tiny bit less.  Especially since we're all still reeling from the LOL RAPE plot point.

Okay, and last--deep breath--we have "The Two Damsels."  Not gonna lie to you: I was really, really eager to be reading something other than Exemplary Novels, so in my impatience to be done here, I may not have given this story the attention it deserved.  Actually, though, it's not terrible.  It's not great or anything, but the heroes don't rape anyone (boy, THERE'S a low bar to clear--OR SO YOU WOULD THINK), and it's generally vaguely pleasant.  The two damsels are both disguised as men to try to catch their erstwhile lovers, who turn out to be the same dude--but he's only committed to/slept with one of them, so he's not dishonorable.  The story is actually very similar to "The Lady Cornelia," inasmuch both of them feature men who SEEM to be cads, but then oh wait they're not.  So ANYWAY, he marries the one, and another dude marries the other and everyone's happy THE FUCKING END.  Phew.

I read this book partially because I had enjoyed "The Ill-Advised Curiosity," and partially because a facebook person said she preferred it to Don Quixote.  Personally, I'm a little baffled: I find it a little hard to believe that these stories were actually written by the author of Don Quixote.  As you know, I don't think my appreciation of DQ was complete, but in the context of these stories, it must be said that I like it a LOT more in retrospect.  You could do worse than to read "The Little Gipsy Girl," "The Spanish-English Lady," and maybe the one with the doggies if you can get past the racism (though I certainly wouldn't call any of them fantastic), but none of the characters are memorable (there's a REASON I rarely noted characters names in the above--they are all forgotten the instant the story is over), none of their romances are even a tiny bit compelling, the satire is limp, and we see an ugly (albeit of-the-times) side of Cervantes that we do not in his more famous work.  Granted, the translation (a public-domain Victorian job by one Walter K. Kelly) could have been better (I chose it because modern translations all seem to all leave out some of the stories), but I really, really don't think that's the main problem here.  I suppose I'm sorta kinda glad to have gotten a more full picture of Cervantes, but now I am DONE with the man, and it is not a happy parting.


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