Spain oscillated between the two poles of saintly mysticism and the picaresque novel, or romance of roguery, in the sixteenth century. Germs of protopicaresque fiction had first appeared in medieval Europe, in the Dance of Death of France and the jest books of Germany. The world’s first genuine picaresque novel was Spain’s LAZARILLO DE TORMES in 1553. Much later came a second major picaresque work, Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán DE ALFARACHE, which was about ten times as long as the earlier work.
Mateo Alemán was born in the same year as Miguel de Cervantes (1547), and his life matches and contrasts with that of DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA’s author in odd ways. The son of a Seville prison doctor, Alemán led a riotous student life and then careened into a life of wanderlust, penury, and wild sprees, interspersed with terms in debtor’s prison. He was once in a Seville dungeon at the same time as Cervantes. Calamity had opposite effects on the two novelists—the noble Cervantes wrote a spiritual novel of the struggle between good and evil, while Alemán wrote one of world literature’s most pessimistic novels, laced with human corruption.
To readers of Alemán’s own day, VIDA Y HECHOS DEL PICARO Guzmán DE ALFARACHE ATALAYA DE LA VIDA HUMANA (THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF Guzmán DE ALFARACHE) was a book much more popular than Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA, its contemporary. Thirty...
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