The Swindler by Francisco de Quevedo.
|Francisco de Quevedo.|
The Swindler (El Buscón) is a novella by Francisco de Quevedo first published in 1625. It's full title is History of the life of the Swindler, called Don Pablos, model for hobos and mirror of misers (Historia de la vida del Buscón, llamado Don Pablos, ejemplo de vagamundos y espejo de tacaños). It tells the story of Don Pablos from his childhood to adulthood, and it's interesting that I read it immediately after Moliére's The Would-Be Gentleman: like Moliére's Monsieur Jourdain, Don Pablos wishes to be a gentleman but unlike Jourdain Don Pablos is not middle class but lower class, and he descends into a life of crime.
The story is divided into three books: in the first Don Pablos speaks of his childhood: his father was a barber and a thief, his brother who was flogged to death in prison for being a thief, and his mother a prostitute and witch. Some of the descriptions of her are wonderfully vivid:
... my mother had no small share of trouble. The old woman who brought me up told me one day that she was so charming that she bewitched anyone who had anything to do with her. The only thing was that there was some rumour about a billy-goat which brought her close to being tarred and feathered and having to try out her bewitching in public. She was rumoured to be able to repair girls' virginities, being back hair and make white hair turn black again. Some people said she could arrange any pleasure; others called her a satisfier of unsatisfied desires and, on the bad side, a procuress and a hole in the pocket for everybody's money. But if you saw her laughing when she heard all this it would attract you even more to her. I shan't waste time describing the penances she underwent. Her room, which only she and sometimes I, being small, went into, was ringed with skulls, which she said were to remind her of death; both other people, always looking for the worst, said they were to put spells in the living. Her bed was hung on old hangman's ropes and she used to say to me:
'Why do you think I have them? I use the ropes ti remind people who like to keep out of trouble to keep their wits about them so that nobody can have even a glimmer of what they're up to.'
Soon, Don Pablos attends school where he is bullied and beaten making only one friend: Don Diego. They remain together when they leave school until Don Diego's father forces them to separate on the grounds of Don Pablos being lower class. Don Pablos then realises how he can win at least some respect having spent most of his life now being bullied and beaten: he begins with petty crime: elaborately tricking a woman into giving him her chickens, killing pigs, and stealing sweets and a sword.
By the time the second book begins Don Pablos has learned that his father is dead and his mother is in prison, and he has an inheritance to collect. He goes, meeting various people on the way, chronicling the discussions he has had such as on the Expulsion of the Moriscos (1609). He also meets his uncle Alonso Ramplón, loses his money gambling, and meets a hidalgo, a Spanish nobleman, who gives him advice on how to be a gentleman, which amounts to how to deceive people and take advantage of various situations.
As the story progresses, Don Pablos, essentially, does not and continues to be surrounded by criminals and ruffians from which it seems he cannot escape. It's an excellent story with very energetic prose, but the message is a bleak one: if you are born lower class, there you will stay - there is no hope of bettering oneself. This is, I'd say, typical of its age. Still, it's great fun and a fascinating insight into early 17th Century Spain.