(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Mateo Alemán 1547-1615?

Spanish Golden Age novelist.

The fame of the Spanish Golden Age writer Mateo Alemán lies almost entirely with his Guzmán de Alfarache, typically regarded as the greatest and most influential picaresque novel. Published in two parts between 1599 and 1604, Alemán's fictional autobiography of an unscrupulous “pícaro,” or rogue—who cheats and deceives his way through life until his final religious conversion—was the most commercially successful piece of Spanish literature of its day, achieving greater critical acclaim and popular sales than even Cervantes' Don Quixote. Although Alemán's masterpiece is seldom read today, scholars continue to debate the authenticity of protagonist's conversion. Critics agree, however, that the psychological complexity, engaging plot, and literary realism of Guzmán de Alfarache rank it with Don Quixote as one of the two greatest novels of the Spanish Golden Age.

Biographical Information

The exact date of Alemán's birth in Seville is unknown, although it was presumably within weeks of his baptism on September 28, 1547. His father was a medical doctor who, like his son, often struggled with financial difficulties. Despite being professing Christians, the Alemán family was suspected of being of Jewish origin, making its members ineligible for Spanish nobility or immigration to the New World. In 1564 Alemán received a Bachelor's degree in Arts and Philosophy from the University of Maese Rodrigo. For the following three years he studied medicine at the universities of Maese Rodrigo, Salamanca, and Alcalá, leaving school temporarily after his father's death in 1567. In 1568 Alemán ended his medical studies permanently and took several large loans in order to become a businessman. His businesses failed, and unable to repay his debts, Alemán agreed to marry the daughter of one his creditors rather than be thrown into debtor's prison. For the following decade Alemán failed at a series of business ventures before returning to the University of Maese Rodrigo in 1580 to study law. Later that same year Alemán was arrested for unpaid debts and sent to prison, where he spent several months before being bailed out by his wife and a prosperous uncle. Seeking a new life, Alemán applied to immigrate to the New World; however, his application was denied because of his Jewish ancestry. In 1583 Alemán was made a judge, but even this position ended in failure when King Philip II ordered Alemán jailed for overstepping his authority. Circumstances began to improve when Alemán got a government job as an accountant soon after being released from his second jail term; he moved to Madrid, augmenting his small salary by renting houses and making loans. In 1591, while in Cartagena on business, Alemán was nearly killed after being accidentally hit in the head by a cannon shot. Crediting his survival to his prayers to Saint Anthony of Padua, Alemán vowed to write a biography of the saint, a promise he kept over a decade later with the publication of San Antonio de Padua (1604; Saint Anthony of Padua). In 1593 Alemán again served as a judge, this time without complaint, gaining still more experiences which would soon find echo in his fictional autobiography of the rogue Guzmán.

Alemán was fifty before he began his literary career, publishing first translations of two odes by Horace and writing a prologue for a book by a friend, Alonso de Barros, in 1598. In 1599 Alemán published Guzmán de Alfarache, a book so immediately popular that within five years it had been reprinted in over twenty-five editions, many of them pirated. Although the success of the novel made Alemán instantly famous, the pirated versions of his work meant that Alemán gained little financial reward. Three years later, in 1602, Alemán was again imprisoned for failure to pay his debts, although he was soon bailed out by a cousin. That same year an unauthorized Part II of Guzmán was published by an pseudonymous author, sparking Alemán to begin work on an authentic continuation of the adventures of the popular “picaro,” which was published in 1604. Despite the continued success of his work, Alemán remained in debt. In 1607 he applied again to immigrate to Mexico, bribing officials to gain permission. Arriving in Mexico in 1608 with his mistress and several of their illegitimate children, Alemán's financial situation immediately improved, probably in large part due to his friendship with Fray García Guerra, Archbishop and Viceroy of New Spain, whom Alemán had met during his voyage to the New World. In Mexico, Alemán continued to write, publishing the Ortografía castellana (Castilian Orthography) in 1609 and Sucesos de D. Frai García Gera (Happenings of Fray García Guerra) in 1613. Nothing more is known of Alemán after 1615, the year most biographers presume he died.

Major Works

Alemán's literary success can be attributed to his lengthy novel, Guzmán de Alfarache, published in two parts in 1599 and 1604, respectively. Regarded as the second picaresque novel published in Spain (the first being the popular Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554 by an unknown author), Guzmán de Alfarache is a fictional autobiography of a “pícaro” or rogue who looks back on his life of deceit and sin after he has been sentenced to life in prison for his wicked deeds. The illegitimate son of a prostitute and an usurer, Guzmán's story begins with a description of his humble origins. After his father dies, Guzmán journeys out into the world and attempts to improve his lot in life. Finding little success in a series of jobs, Guzmán falls in with a group of rogues and beggars from whom he learns how to gain a comfortable living by thievery and fraud. Cheating at cards enables him to pose as a successful merchant, and he soon marries a woman who leaves him penniless before she dies. Next, the rogue decides to become a minister because he considers this occupation easy, but he soon abandons this plan and marries again, this time acting as a pimp and living on the earnings of his wife's prostitution. When this wife finally deserts him, Guzmán once again gains his living from gambling and thievery until he is finally apprehended and sentenced to a life in prison for his many crimes. In prison, the narrator repents of his crimes, promising to lead a virtuous life in the future. The open ending of the second part of the novel has led many critics to believe that Alemán intended to write a third section; however, this remains largely speculative since Alemán did not write further adventures of his most famous character before his death in 1615.

Critical Reception

Not only did the publication of Guzmán de Alfarache gain Alemán instant popular success as an author, his novel was praised by critics of his day for both its highly entertaining plot and its moral teachings. Within fifteen years of the novel's first publication it was translated into French, Italian, and German, and Alemán's prose was widely considered superior to Cervantes' popular 1605 masterpiece, Don Quixote. Modern critics often regard Alemán's picaresque novel as a revolutionary step within the emerging literary genre, and contend that its unsentimental depiction of everyday life fostered the development of the modern realistic novel. Nearly all twentieth-century criticism of the novel focuses on the interpretation of Guzmán's religious conversion. Some critics conclude that the narrator's turn to religion is yet another example of a scoundrel who seizes the opportunity to turn to piety only in order to save his life, while others regard the conversion as authentic, teaching the lesson that all men are cursed with Original Sin but can be saved through repentance and divine grace. The psychological complexity of Guzmán's narration, mixing burlesque humor and satire with moral digressions chastising a degenerate society, has opened a wide spectrum of conjecture on the relationship between the character Guzmán and the author Alemán, a Christian of Jewish origins who may have wished to prove his devotion to Christian tenets. Whatever its interpretation, critics are unanimous in their praise of Guzmán de Alfarache as one of the seminal novels of the Spanish Golden Age.