Guzmán de Alfarache

by Mateo Alemán

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3577

First published: Part I, 1599; Part II, 1604 (English translation, 1622)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque romance

Time of work: Sixteenth century

Locale: Spain and Italy

Principal Characters:

Guzmán de Alfarache, a rogue

A Muleteer

A Cook

A Captain of soldiers

Don Beltran, Guzman’s uncle

A Cardinal

A French Ambassador

Sayavedra, another rogue and Guzman’s friend

Guzman’s first Wife

Guzman’s second Wife

Soto, a galley prisoner

The Story:

The ancestors of Guzmán de Alfarache lived in Genoa, upstart noblemen who had grown rich in trade. Like others of his family, Guzmán’s father was a dealer on the exchange, resorting even to usury in order to add to his wealth, although he piously heard mass every morning and owned a rosary with beads as large as hazelnuts. His love of money led him into his greatest adventure, for when a partner in Seville became bankrupt and carried away some of the money belonging to Guzmán’s father, the Genoese took ship for Spain in an attempt to recover some of his lost property. On the way, his ship was captured by Moorish pirates, and the merchant was sold into slavery in Algiers. Envisioning no other way out of his difficulty, he embraced the faith of Allah and so was able to marry a rich Moorish widow. Secretly, he took possession of her money and jewels and fled with them to Seville. There, after some time, he found his former partner, recovered most of his debt, made his peace with the Church, and settled down to live the life of a gentleman, trading in money for his profit and gambling for his pleasure.

Now a prosperous man, he bought two estates, one in town, the other at San Juan de Alfarache. One day he saw the mistress of an old knight and fell in love with her. The lady was not unwilling to share her favors between her two lovers, so that Guzmán could say in later life that at the time of his birth he had possessed two fathers. When the old knight died, the woman carried away all of his property and a short time later married Guzmán’s true father. The merchant did not long survive but died a bankrupt, impoverished by his gambling and love of rich living. Left penniless, Guzmán decided to seek his fortune elsewhere. Calling himself Guzmán de Alfarache, after his father’s country estate, he started out at the age of fourteen to see the world.

Unused to walking, he soon tired and slept supperless that night on the steps of a church not far from Seville. The next morning, his way led him to a wretched inn, where the hostess cooked him a breakfast omelet of eggs filled with half-hatched chicks. He ate the mess ravenously, but before he had traveled a league from the inn, he became violently ill. A passing muleteer laughed heartily when Guzmán told his story, and in his glee, he invited the boy to ride with him. As they rode along, the muleteer told how the hostess of the inn had tried the same trick on two lively young fellows who had rubbed her face in the omelet and daubed her with soot.

Meanwhile, Guzmán and the muleteer had found two friars by the roadside. Since they were on their way to Cacalla, they were willing to hire two of the carrier’s mules. That night the travelers stopped at a village inn where the landlord fed them a freshly killed young mule instead of veal. The next morning, after discovering the deception, Guzmán and...

(This entire section contains 3577 words.)

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the muleteer threw the whole inn into an uproar. During the confusion, two alcaldes appeared and took the rascally landlord into custody. Guzmán and the muleteer left the town in great haste.

Some distance beyond the village they were overtaken by several constables looking for a page who had stolen from his master. Mistaking Guzmán for the page, they seized him, and when the muleteer tried to interfere, they bound him as well. After the prisoners had been severely beaten, the constables, convinced of Guzmán’s innocence, allowed the travelers to continue on their way. To help Guzmán and the carrier to forget their aching bones, one of the priests told the romantic story of Ozmin and Daraxa, a tale of the Moorish wars.

By the time the story ended, they were in sight of Cacalla, where they parted company. The muleteer demanded more for Guzmán’s transportation and lodging than the boy could pay. The two friars decided at last upon a fair price, but the reckoning left Guzmán without enough money to buy his dinner that day.

Hungry but ashamed to beg, Guzmán took the road to Madrid. For a time he followed two travelers in the hope that they would offer him some of their dinner when they stopped to eat, but they ignored him. A poor Franciscan friar came by, however, and shared with the boy his loaf of bread and piece of bacon. That night, an innkeeper gave Guzmán a bed in a stable and the next morning hired him to feed the horses of the guests. Guzmán soon learned to cheat in measuring oats and straw. Deciding at last that the life was too lazy for him, he left the inn and started once more for Madrid.

He had soon spent his coppers and was forced to beg; his luck, however, was so poor that it was necessary for him to sell the clothes off his back in order to live. By the time he reached Madrid, he looked like a scarecrow. Unable to find work because of his poor appearance, he fell in with some beggars who taught him knavery of all kinds.

He became a porter for a time, hiring himself to carry provisions which purchasers had bought at market. In this way he met a cook who persuaded him to turn scullion. Like the other servants, Guzmán learned to steal from his master. One day he took a silver goblet. His mistress, discovering the loss, gave him money to buy another like it. Guzmán returned the goblet and kept the money, which he soon lost at cards. He continued his petty thefts until his master caught him selling provisions and cuffed him out of the house. Then he went back to carrying baskets in the market. Among his customers was a trusting grocer who one day put into his basket more than twenty-five hundred gold reals. Escaping through side streets, Guzmán fled into the country, where he lay hidden until the hue and cry had died down. With his riches, he planned to visit his father’s kinsmen in Genoa.

When he thought the coast clear, Guzmán headed for Toledo. On the way, he encountered a young man from whom he bought an outfit of clothing. Freshly attired, he lived like a young gentleman of fortune. He had little luck in his gallantries, however, and his love intrigues always ended with his being fleeced or made ridiculous by ladies he courted. He left Toledo with few regrets when he heard that a constable was looking for a young man recently arrived from Madrid.

At Almagro, Guzmán found a company of soldiers on their way to Italy. He enlisted, hoping to leave his past troubles behind him. Before long, he became the captain’s crony, and the two spent their nights in gaming and wenching. Finding himself without funds, Guzmán resorted to his old habits of roguery; at the same time, he was reduced to serving the captain who had formerly treated him as an equal. The captain was perfectly willing to profit by Guzmán’s wits. In Barcelona they gulled a miserly old jeweler. Guzmán took to him a gold reliquary of the captain’s and offered it for sale. After much haggling, they agreed upon a price of one hundred and twenty crowns, and the jeweler promised to bring the money to the dock. When Guzmán had the coins in his hand, he cut the strings which held the reliquary around his neck and handed the jewel to the old man. Then, after passing the money to a confederate, he shouted that the jeweler was a thief. Because the strings of the reliquary had been cut and no money was found on Guzmán’s person, his story was believed. Guzmán and the captain kept both the money and the jewel.

Having no further use for Guzmán’s services, the captain decided to abandon the rogue after the soldiers arrived in Genoa. Turned loose with a single coin, Guzmán applied to his rich relatives for aid, but they refused to receive him and gave him only curses and blows. Don Beltran, his uncle, did take the boy into his house, but only for the purpose of setting the servants on him and having them toss him in a blanket until he was shaken and bruised. The next morning, Guzmán swore revenge on his deceitful relative and started for Rome.

There he turned professional beggar and lived by his wits, having learned how to make bones appear disjointed and to raise false sores that resembled leprosy or ulcers. Only once was he beaten for his mendacity. One day a kindhearted cardinal noticed an evil-looking ulcer on Guzmán’s leg. Out of pity he had the beggar taken to his own house and given medical attention. The doctor summoned to attend him soon discovered Guzmán’s trick, but he kept silent in order to swindle some of the prelate’s gold. The sore cured, and Guzmán became a page in the cardinal’s household. There he lived daintily enough, but he was unable to refrain from stealing conserves and sweetmeats kept in a chest in the cardinal’s chamber. Caught when the lid of the chest fell on his arm and trapped him, he received a beating. Even then the cardinal did not discharge him, but at last the churchman could stand his thieving and gambling no longer, and Guzmán was dismissed.

His next employment was in the household of the French ambassador, to whom he was page, jester, and pimp, a rascal whose boisterous pranks helped to clear the ambassador’s table of parasites who abused the Frenchman’s hospitality. The ambassador, planning an intrigue with the wife of a Roman gentleman, made Guzmán his go-between. Learning that the page had seduced her maid, the matron determined to teach him and his master a lesson. One night, while he waited for her answer to the ambassador, she allowed Guzmán to stand for hours in a drenching rain. Blundering about in the darkness of a backyard, he fell into a pigsty. The next day, dressed in his best, he went to complain to his sweetheart about his treatment. While he was strutting before her, a boar escaped from its pen, ran between his legs, and carried him through the muddy streets of Rome.

Guzmán became the laughingstock of the town. One day, as some urchins were taunting him, another young man came to his assistance. He and his rescuer, a waggish young Spaniard named Sayavedra, became close friends. Anxious to escape ridicule, Guzmán decided to go to Siena to visit a friend named Pompeyo. While he tarried in Rome to make his farewells, he sent his trunks on ahead. Great was his dismay when he arrived in Siena and learned that his trunks, filled with clothing, money, and jewels, had been stolen. Sayavedra had preceded him to Siena, passed himself off as Signor Guzmán, and with his confederates made off with the real Guzmán’s valuables. After a search, Sayavedra was arrested, but the stolen property could not be recovered; it had passed into the hands of a rich thief-master named Alexandro Bentivoglio. Making the best of a bad situation, Guzmán refused to bring charges against the wretched Sayavedra.

Since his guest was low in funds, Pompeyo proved only an indifferent host, and at last, Guzmán decided to go to Florence. Not far from Siena he overtook Sayavedra again. When the thief begged for pardon, Guzmán was filled with pity for the rascal and readily forgave him. Together they planned to have Guzmán pass as the nephew of the Spanish ambassador, Sayavedra as his page. Shameless, they played on the credulity of all whom they met in Florence. Guzmán was about to marry a rich young widow when a beggar whom he had formerly known revealed the impostor’s true identity, and he and his page were forced to flee the city.

They next went to Bologna, where Guzmán began a suit to recover his property from Bentivoglio. For his pains, he was thrown into jail, from which he was released, penniless again, only after he had withdrawn his charges. Aided by Sayavedra, Guzmán cheated two men at cards, and with the money he won, they traveled to Milan. In Milan, they entered into a conspiracy to defraud a wealthy merchant. Although he was arrested as a swindler, Guzmán convinced the city officials of the merchant’s dishonesty, and a large sum of money gained by their scheme lined the rogues’ pockets once more.

About that time Guzmán devised a plan to revenge himself on his Genoese relatives. Arriving in that city, he let it be known that he was Don Juan de Guzmán, a gentleman of Seville, recently come from Rome. Not recognizing the young beggar whom they had cuffed and insulted several years before, his relatives outdid themselves to honor their wealthy kinsman. On the pretext that a Castilian gentlewoman of his acquaintance was to be married, he borrowed jewels from Don Beltran to dress the bride, giving in security two trunks which the old man believed filled with silver plate. Pretending to be temporarily out of funds, he also secured a large loan from a cousin in return for a spurious gold chain. Then, having taken passage with a trusted sea captain, he and Sayavedra sailed for Spain. During the voyage, Guzmán was greatly grieved when his friend became delirious with fever and jumped overboard.

Not wishing to tarry in Barcelona, Guzmán went to Saragossa. There he courted an heiress until the jealousy of her other admirers and his unwise dalliance with her kitchenmaid caused him to leave and go to Madrid. Eventually he married, only to learn too late that his wife’s father was without a fortune. Before long, Guzmán himself was declared a bankrupt and imprisoned. His wife died of shame. Disgusted with the world, he decided to study for the Church.

Shortly before he was to take orders, he met a handsome woman who became his second wife. They returned to Madrid, where the wife attracted the attention of so many wealthy men that for a time their affairs prospered; in the end, however, they were publicly disgraced and banished. From Madrid they went to Seville. They found Guzmán’s mother still alive but stricken in years. There he lived by his wits in a household of quarrelsome women until his wife did him a great favor and ran away with an Italian sea captain. A short time later, he and his mother parted in friendly fashion. Later, with the help of a gullible friar, Guzmán became steward to a gentlewoman whose husband was in the Indies. Old habits were too strong for him, and he began to rob his mistress. His thefts were discovered, and he was sentenced to the galleys for life.

Because of his smooth tongue and pleasant ways, he was able to make himself a favorite with the officers, thereby arousing the jealousy and hate of his fellow prisoners. When several of them robbed him, the theft was discovered, and the culprits were flogged. A short time later, the captain’s kinsman was robbed, and Guzmán, accused by another prisoner named Soto, was beaten until he was almost dead. Guzmán was soon to have his revenge. Discovering Soto’s plot to seize the ship and escape to the African coast, he revealed the plan to the captain. Soto and the chief conspirators were executed. The grateful captain struck off Guzmán’s chains and gave him full liberty aboard the galley while awaiting the pardon which had been petitioned of the king. Guzmán repented the rogue’s life he had led and resolved to mend his ways in the future.

Critical Evaluation:

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 editions of the novel appeared within six years of its publication; its vogue quickly spread to France and England, where in 1622 James Mabbe translated it into English under the appropriate title of THE SPANISH ROGUE. Alemán’s novel, published in two parts in 1599 and 1604, is typically Spanish: realistic, comic, often coarse.

Guzmán DE ALFARACHE views human nature dimly and is much more bitter than LAZARILLO DE TORMES. Women are cunning vixens who fleece dullard men, the latter being selfish louts. The poor are coarse, greedy, and unlovable. Humans have appetites but not ideals, while color and humor are scarce. Thieves, scamps, and false friends festoon the novel’s pages, along with cynicism (the Spanish word cinico is more negative than the English “cynical,” implying total unscrupulousness). Guzmán, the protagonist, cheats and betrays and wanders the rural roads and urban alleys of Spain and Italy. He is finally condemned to the ultimate horror of rogues—service as a galley slave. The novel’s episodes are morbidly interesting and ripple casually on for hundreds of pages. Life is seamy to the core, honor can be bought like garlic at a fair, and dreams are fake. The novel follows the same autobiographical form as LAZARILLO DE TORMES, but stitches short stories, fables, allegories, satirical polemics, and long moralizations into its fabric. Unity is supplied by Guzmán’s narration of his miserable life, and the novel alternates geographically between city and country, a technique that was to be followed by subsequent Spanish novelists, including Cervantes. The novel also bobs up and down from one social level to another with a range and energy new to Spanish fiction.

What sets Guzmán DE ALFARACHE apart from other examples of the picaresque novel is the writer’s use of philosophical and moralizing digression. Alemán loses no opportunity to comment on human character or behavior, and in his discursive passages, he reveals his own outstanding qualities: frankness, pessimism, broad humor, wit, humility of faith, and practical common sense. Viewed as their author intended, these passages provide a reading of life itself, an obbligato accompaniment to a story which is, in narrative outline and in character drawing, one of the best and most diverting of the picaresque romances.

Alemán was nevertheless such a child of his Catholic culture that his novel views affliction as God’s purification of man. It is implied that man can fight original sin, while suffering is the royal road to conversion. (Some critics contrast this to Daniel Defoe’s MOLL FLANDERS, 1722, where conversion leads to prosperity.) Guzmán attended mass regularly, thus leaving battered readers with hope of a better eternity despite all gross imperfections of this world.

Guzmán DE ALFARACHE went through some thirty editions and many translations in its first five years. Alemán’s massive notes for the second part were stolen, resulting in an apocryphal version, but he rewrote a genuine second part. He went to Mexico late in life and died in the faith, but still believing, as did Guzmán, that dreams are false: “It is all castles in the air! Fantastic silhouettes of imagination!”