Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Non-Poet King of Poetry: Ramón Gómez de la Serna

Ramón Gómez de la Serna in his studio. Photograph by Alfonso Sánchez Portela.

Either Spanish literature consists of nothing but anomalistic masterpieces or I’ve had exceptional good fortune in my selections for Spanish Literature Month.[i] I decided to stick to Spain itself (easier said than done), and have been surprised, humbled, and not a little awestruck by what I’ve found. My choices came largely by chance; I read each knowing next to nothing about its author, content, or place in the Spanish canon. Each not only turned out to have had significant impact on Spanish literature, but also moved into the ranks of my personal favorites from any literature. Following Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina (1499) and Angel Ganivet’s The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya (1897), my final selection for the month hails from the 20th century, two books by an author who came to my attention only this week. Thanks to terrific posts by Miguel of St. Orberose concerning lists compiled by Jorge Luis Borges for two book series Borges had started to edit, I took a look at some of the names on the lists I didn’t recognize.

How is it possible that I’ve made it this far through life without ever hearing of Ramón Gómez de la Serna (1888-1963)? Any of you who might also be late to this party may well ask: why should I have heard of him? Let’s see what the introduction to one of these books, a collection of eight novellas by Gómez de la Serna entitled (with remarkable restraint) Eight Novellas[ii], has to say about him:

…the literary mentor of Buñuel and Dalí.

…the Spanish writer most sought after and the one who had the strongest impact on the Latin American avant-garde writers from the nineteen twenties on…

…often considered one of the two true artistic geniuses of his time in Spain, the other being Picasso.

Okay, so that’s the opinion of the editors/translators. Do they provide assessments other than their own? They do:

As Ortega [y Gasset] describes how the new [modernist] art looks at reality…he refers to Proust and Joyce but cites only Ramón.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez declared that Ramón was the most influential writer of his formative years.

Cortázar regarded him highly, and used to follow him along the Calle Florida as an idol.

Okay then. But how about some primary sources?

“…for me he is the great Spanish writer” – Octavio Paz

“…a visionary of the universe, mental monarch and king of poetry” – Pablo Neruda.

Coming full circle, the introduction notes: “Borges wrote a book about him.”

One excuse for my not having heard of Gómez de la Serna is that little of his work has been translated into English, aside from scattered anthologized stories; an old issue of the literary journal Zero containing a handful of stories translated by Paul Bowles; and the Eight Novellas I’d found in the library. There’s a selection, published in English as Aphorisms and which I also found in the library, of the literary form Gómez de la Serna invented and called greguerías – short, humorous, imagistic, aphoristic one-liners. Finally, there’s one of de la Serna’s twenty novels translated as Movieland! (it’s supposedly about Hollywood). This, alas, was not in the library, and the price of the sole copy I could find for sale - $1,000 U.S. - put me off a bit.

The biographical details of Ramón’s life - I’ll switch to using his first name, as that’s apparently how he’s known in Spain - are perhaps even more incredible than the praise heaped upon him. It’s worth picking up these books just for the biosketches they contain; the Wikipedia entry for Ramón does not quite convey the outlandishness and electrical presence he apparently commanded. Suffice here to say that he was a catalyst – really the catalyst – for avant-garde Spanish literature and art, living a wildly inventive lifestyle and inhabiting a Madrid apartment more like a cabinet of curiosities than a residence. He bridges Spanish and Latin American literature, as he left Spain at the beginning of the civil war and lived out his life in Argentina. His prolific literary output comprises some 90 books of short stories, plays, novels, essays, literary criticism, biographies and, the contribution for which he may be best known, his beloved greguerías.

The greguerías make a good a place to start, especially since they make their way into his longer pieces with a style so singular that it bears his name: ramónismo. Aphorisms is a curious title for this collection of some 400 greguerías, since translator Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth goes to great lengths to distinguish them from aphorisms (his introduction is as succinct and invaluable an analysis of the aphoristic genre as one is likely to find anywhere). Ramón’s greguerías are exceptionally playful, experimental, lyrical condensations that illustrate how Neruda could call him a “king of poetry” even when poetry was one genre Ramón did not attempt. Poetic they are nonetheless:

Clouds should bear tags disclosing their destination so we don’t worry about them.

In the background of all mirrors there crouches a photographer.

The fragrance of flowers is an echo.

It was such nice weather that all keys took the day off.

Cloves of garlic: witches’ teeth.

Distant sails like napkins in the goblets at the banquet of the sea.

We should take more time to forget; that way we would have a longer life.

Gonzalez-Gerth notes that the form originated during a visit to Florence when, gazing upon the Arno, Ramón “suddenly perceived that each of the two banks of the river wanted to be where the other one was…an extraordinary perception [by which] all pairs and even peers among things became involved in a sort of natural and fatal competition of desire which altered the whole humdrum surface of reality.” Thus the genre was born, and Ramón came to define it mathematically: “metaphor + humor = greguería.”

This condensed metaphorical form gets woven into the absurdist stories constituting the enormously enjoyable Eight Novellas: a man’s liver appearing at his doorstop one day to move in as a constant companion; a misanthrope who spends a part of every day aspiring to become a physical feature of Naples’ Principe di Napoli galleria; a battle against influenza waged largely by amateur medical opinion; a revolution of hat haters; a mathematical approach to understanding social interactions in an apartment building; a lady who vanishes mysteriously from a hotel (the inspiration for the Alexander Woollcott novel that in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes); a man attempting to recuperate from a failed marriage by building a short-wave radio and immersing himself in its aural world; and a mad scientist intent on splitting the atom. These cursory descriptions barely hint at the humorous, often moving and glittering poeticism mingled with glimpses of the profound that one finds in these tales, which call to mind the work of Nikolai Gogol, Daniil Kharms, Dino Buzzati, and Frigyes Karinthy (Gonzalez-Gerth also mentions the poet Christian Morgenstern), but with a lighter yet more wildly energetic touch by which ideas shoot off like showers of sparks from a Roman (Ramón?) candle.

In “The Flumaster” (“Le Gran Griposo”), Ramón presents a plethora of dazzling greguerían descriptions of what it feels like to have the flu and addresses the myriad ways people deny illness by proposing all kinds of rationalizations and quack therapies. The afflicted protagonist even wonders if “he could ever find the word that would banish the flu! Success might come by using one word against another.” This remarkably pure modernist concept suggests something of the quality of ramónismo. Ramón writes as though slowly turning a complex kaleidoscope filled with words that tumble into different metaphorical combinations. But – and here he differs from surrealists out for pure effect – he also seems to point his kaleidoscope/microscope/telescope towards every emerging aspect of the modern world, sometimes with a penetrating view into the future. The introduction notes Ramón’s uncanny anticipation of such things as the Internet, various medical and psychological discoveries, the impact of car culture, and even a frighteningly prescient prediction of the atomic bomb, which, via his far-seeing 1926 story “The Master of the Atom” (“El dueño del átomo”), he claimed to have invented. The sophistication of Ramón’s surrealism shows in his story “Kill the Morse!” (“¡Hay que matar el Morse!”), where he refers not to the difference between the real and the unreal, as would be the expected approach, but to that “between the real and the real that seems unreal because it is so far away.”

Ramón’s imagistic sentences often display a kind of fever of composition and experimentation, frequently resulting in startling originality, energy, lyricism, depth, and varieties of beauty that could make the snowflake community jealous. Far from appearing labored or crafted, his prose has a wildly free, extemporaneous quality, a vital and living language. Like his revolutionary hat-hater, “free from the torture of holding onto his hat” and at liberty to stroll through the world “enjoying the challenge of a cane, twirling, riposting, parrying,” Ramón Gómez de la Serna demands the new, and delivers it with flair, joy, and a freedom of spirit rare in literature. I can’t wait to read more.

[i] Co-hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog.
[ii] Herlinda Charpentier Saitz and Robert L. Saitz, translators.

Friday, July 27, 2012

"The most original of knights errant" - Ángel Ganivet’s The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya

"Flying Hippo," photocollage by Kleemass, used with his kind permission. 
More of Kleemass' work can be seen at http://www.kleemass.deviantart.com/

I’d find it difficult to dislike any work where in the first pages the protagonist declaims a line like this one:

...there are difficult moments in the life of a man, during which he finds himself constrained to abdicate his sovereignty and calmly obey the first pachyderm that comes along.

The pachyderm in question in Ángel Ganivet’s hugely entertaining and disquieting 1897 novel, The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya (La conquista del reino de Maya, por el último conquistador español, Pío Cid), is a hippopotamus. More precisely, it’s a sacred hippopotamus allegedly capable of flight, and astride it rides the intrepid Spanish entrepreneur Pío Cid into the hidden heart of Africa to be welcomed as a divinity by the tribe named in the title. If the name Maya and the story (minus its pachyderm and African setting) sound familiar, it’s because Ganivet’s picaresque novel is also a lancing, Swiftian satire of Spain’s colonial enterprises, with allusions to the conquest of Mesoamerica (the ghost of Hernán Cortés even makes an appearance) as well as a broader view of colonialist exploits, given that Ganivet began the novel while assigned to the Spanish consulate in Antwerp as Belgium was conducting its genocidal conquest of the Congo. The Sanskrit meaning of “Maya” as “illusion” holds perhaps greater significance (as a student, the polylingual Ganivet wrote a thesis on Sanskrit), since the illusions of Europeans’ aspirations regarding those they colonized form the novel’s center of gravity.

Given the protagonist’s name and his self-identification as “the most original of knights errant,” The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya also consciously addresses itself to its great predecessors in Spanish literature, most evidently The Poem of the Cid and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, situating itself firmly in the tradition of the chivalric and picaresque.  But in its mixture of acidic irony; absurd, surrealistic elements; and presciently modern themes, Ganivet’s novel looks towards the future of literature. The “magical realism” of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez begins to look a bit threadworn after plunging into Ganivet’s world of hippopotami-borne chevaliers, oracles who interpret parrot songs, velocipede-peddling pygmies and a spiritual mythos in which worlds are stacked one upon the other like a layer cake, the terrestrial tier awaiting a rapture when a race of half-human/half-monkey slaves will descend to liberate humankind from toil.  

I don’t recall where I first heard of Ganivet – almost certainly in an on-line forum regarding worthy works not yet translated into English. Thus my copy of the book is in French (La Conquête du royaume du Maya), translated by François Gaudry and with a terrific introduction by novelist Álvaro Mutis. Mutis describes Ganivet’s work as occupying “a singularly premonitory place upstream of the vast amount of literature that irrigates, up to the present, the Spanish imagination – and perhaps even more so, the Hispanic-American imagination.” An early member of the “Generation of '98” and close friend of Miguel de Unamuno, Ganivet matriculated from the university in his native Granada before leaving Spain to spend his adult life in the Spanish diplomatic corps, serving in Antwerp, Helsinki and finally Riga, where, at age 33, suffering from depression and syphilitic madness, he drowned himself in the icy waters of the Dniva. An essayist and playwright as well as novelist, he’d authored several idealistic treatises exploring the qualities of Spain’s national character and proposing a vision for the country’s future, noted by Mutis as constituting - along with the correspondence between Ganivet and Unamuno - “the most significant works of Spanish thought of the last two centuries.” This overarching concern for the development of a nation lies at the heart of The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya, the first of Ganivet’s two novels, both of which feature Pío Cid (the second, The Works of the Indefatigable Creator Pío Cid, appeared a month prior to Ganivet’s death and seems to be unavailable in English or French translation).

Pío Cid, a patriotic Spaniard of “independent and proud character,” has honed his practical and commercial skills in various European capitals before taking a position in Zanzibar, where tedium and the exotic travel accounts of European explorers lure him to take leave to explore the African continent. Accompanying a group of Arab traders as they leave the coast for Africa’s interior, Cid is separated from the group and captured by head-hunters. Narrowly escaping with his life and fleeing into the jungle, he stumbles upon a hippopotamus adorned with a bridle of vines which carries him into the hitherto unknown land of the Maya, rulers of a kingdom “the size of Portugal and shaped like a salted cod.” Using his wits to profit from the Maya’s belief that he is a long sought Igana-Igaru, or divinity, Pío Cid re-invents himself as the embodiment of a previous such “divinity” who went missing 20 years before under suspicious circumstances. This set-up, dispatched in the first chapters, provides the platform from which Cid launches into a lengthy account of his intimate life with the Maya. He describes in detail their history, customs, religion, government and social institutions before embarking on a self-appointed attempt to reform all of that, as Ganivet’s satire now subtly turns its focus from the Maya’s primitivism (it need hardly be said that the Maya are presented as completely over-the-top caricatures of early European explorers’ accounts of “the Dark Continent”) to Pío Cid’s efforts to introduce a “superior” civilization. Of unshakeable confidence, Cid lets no fleeting doubts regarding his assumptions and decisions hold him back. Through his blinders (and blunders), Spain itself, its colonial adventures, and a broad swath of European attitudes and behaviors are revealed in their ignorance, arrogance and cruelty. Never does Pío Cid fully recognize his own role in sending ripples (and tidal waves) through Mayan society, which result in not only a coup d’etat but eventually in his own assumption of power as a kind of prime minister pulling the strings behind an easily malleable, ineffective, alcoholic king.

Through a series of ruses that exploit the Maya’s gullibility and susceptibility to new technologies and the promise of commercial gain, Pío Cid institutes major reforms. These include the creation of a Constitution (temporarily abandoned due to its unwieldy length, not to mention the illiteracy of most of the inhabitants); a top-down reorganization of government (with an expansion of the power of the Maya’s religious clerics and teachers, formation of a vast bureaucracy of useless administrative functionaries whom Cid sees as the glue that provides stability in government, and increasing concentration of the country’s resources and riches in himself). He inaugurates massive infrastructure projects including the building of new cities, the canalization of the territory, and the installation of nighttime lighting, as well as a panoply of other efforts such as replacement of loincloths with multicolored robes, the introduction of soap, establishment of a laundry, development of the arts and sciences, and the transformation of a society of ritual into one of spectacle. These efforts to “civilize” the refractory and backwards Maya, introduced with lofty intentions and convoluted rationalizations, somehow always accrue to Cid’s personal advantage (during his stay, while proclaiming only the best and least prurient of intentions, Cid acquires an exponentially growing number of wives, which for matters strictly of manageability he finally caps at 50). His efforts also spawn complications that require even further reforms. Initial misgivings that introducing an industry of alcohol production might create detrimental side effects are dismissed by Cid’s racist assumption that the Maya will react to drink differently than his own countrymen (predictably disastrous consequences ensue). Cid proudly sums up his accumulated reformist efforts as a “tableau,” suggesting that for him (and underscoring the Sanskrit meaning of the title) they have served primarily an aesthetic role. The end result of Pío Cid’s impact is neatly represented in the book’s final pages by a crudely drawn map of the Kingdom of the Maya pre- and post-Cid, the most noticeable change being that the map has been turned upside down.

To succeed, satire must hew close to the truth; what makes The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya so devastatingly effective is that it reads, with tremendous seductiveness, like an actual explorer’s account. Ganivet never breaks character in his serious narrative façade, even as his protagonist, like a blindfolded person holding a match while walking down a corridor stocked with fireworks, sparks plenty of shock, awe and hilarity. I found it difficult to isolate – for purposes of quoting in this post – passages that succinctly conveyed Ganivet at his most satirical, for he develops his attacks painstakingly and at such length that their objects manifest themselves belatedly. One can read along for pages before a subtle accumulation of incredible details reaches a tipping point, and the absurdity of what’s just been described suddenly becomes apparent. The solemnity with which he describes an ink used by the Maya seems plausible until one pauses to reflect on the farcical quality of its ingredients: palm oil, the tint from a giant yellow flower, and the blood of a rabbit. He accomplishes a similar sleight of hand with his larger themes, inviting identification with Pío Cid’s more magnanimous and altruistic ideas - Cid is, after all, a complex and often sympathetic figure - then stringing his readers along until, too late, we recognize we’re on extremely shaky terrain just at the moment the bottom falls out.

Ganivet’s treatment of judicial processes ably demonstrates his ability to deliver his barbs with subtlety, patience, and blistering humor. The judicial system of the Maya is introduced in Pío Cid’s first decision as Igana Igaru, in which he’s called to pass judgment in the case of a farmer who’s allowed his mule to wander into a sacred temple. Playing to the crowd, Cid rules in favor of the mule, condemning its poor owner to swift decapitation, with the mule left braying madly “from joy or from distress, I could not tell.” Years later, driven by an idle calculation of the number of persons he’s condemned, he begins to seek ways to mitigate the barbarity of these executions, a section of the novel that fiercely lampoons both the inhuman theatricality of judicial processes as well as the inhumanity of incremental reforms in matters of life and death. After unsuccessfully trying a gradual introduction of symbolic animal sacrifices to stand in for the human ones (resulting in little more than a co-mingling of bovine and human blood he fears will offend the Maya), Cid replaces decapitation with an idea borrowed from his beloved bullfighting, with the condemned forced to do public battle with angry bulls (and later, to enhance the show, a panther). Acknowledging that the end result – dead prisoners – is the same, Cid expresses pride in having turned justice into an energetic, cathartic, participatory activity that offers the added bonus of generating heroes out of those few fortunate enough to vanquish their animal foes. Beneath a lot of Ganivet’s humor, there’s as much madness and horror as can be found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which appeared a mere two years later.

The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya wowed me with its inventiveness, panoramic vision, subtle but scorching satire, rich language, and sustained ironic tone that made reading the novel a nearly delirious experience (and a challenging one; the many Mayan terms devised by Ganivet would have made a glossary helpful). There’s a warmth and lack of righteousness in Ganivet’s writing that makes his satire palatable even as it’s piercing, investing the reader in questioning his or her own assumptions and motivations, bringing to the surface the myriad ways people can rationalize their most altruistic intentions to unconsciously serve themselves. Lancing human foibles and frailties with an eye on the profound and the eternal, the broad sweep of Ganivet’s novel lights on targets easily recognizable in today’s world: racism and xenophobia, the treatment of immigrants and minorities, the rush to war as a means of fomenting patriotism, the hidden injuries of class, governmental bureaucracy and corruption, the pernicious effects of capitalism and commercialization, the seductions of technology, the arrogance and self interest of imperial power, the destruction of traditions and rituals, the patriarchal organization of societies (I have not even touched on Ganivet’s confounding treatment of gender in the Maya’s polygamous, polyandrous society). Ganivet’s novel seems far ahead of its time, addressing global issues, melding satire and idealism, introducing elements of the surreal and magical, parodying ethnographic assumptions and imperializing aspirations, and undermining narrative authority in the unforgettable, beguiling, ridiculously sublime and increasingly mad voice of the last Spanish conquistador, Pío Cid. Here’s one major work of Spanish literature long overdue for translation into English. 

Read as part of Spanish Literature Month co-hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog.

For biographical details, I am indebted to Judith Ginsberg's outstanding monograph, Angel Ganivet, Tamesis Books Limited, London, 1985. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Celestina, Out of the Sky

Pablo Picasso, illustration from La Celestine, 1968

I was all but fated to read Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina. I’d never heard of this early work of Spanish literature, which first appeared in 1499, before poking around the Internet one afternoon for information on Sir Peter Russell, the Oxford literary scholar and British intelligence officer who’d served as the model for Peter Wheeler in Javier Marías’ trilogy of novels, Your Face Tomorrow. Russell had apparently written extensively about Celestina, and I noted the title for future reference.  The following morning, while walking through San Francisco, I spied a book abandoned on the sidewalk, wet from the previous night’s rain. I was dumbfounded to discover that it was a Spanish language copy of Celestina. I actually found myself gazing into the sky wondering if perhaps the book had just dropped out of it.

It took me until now - thanks to the nudge afforded by Spanish Literature Month co-hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad’s blog – to pick up an English translation and read Celestina. I expected an interesting work that would expand my minimal knowledge of early Spanish literature. I did not, however, expect a work so subversive and daring, broadly humanistic, startlingly modern, outlandishly sexual, laugh-out-loud funny, moving, beautifully written, and vibrantly alive. This is the kind of book I live for: something unanticipated and new in my experience, capable of opening up whole new perspectives on literature.

Told almost entirely in dialogue, Celestina recounts the wily, advantage-seeking machinations of the shrewd, sixty-year-old bawd, Celestina, in her efforts to engineer for the noble Calisto a love affair with the object of his lovesick, stalker-ish obsession, the noble-lady Melibea. This quintessential upstairs/downstairs story pits servants against their masters and nearly everyone (other than the two hopelessly oblivious lovers) against nearly everyone else, all scheming with lust and self-interest, their public selves contrasting starkly with their private motivations. Much of the work’s humor, in fact, derives from the characters’ cynical private asides, mumbled under breath before emerging as audible platitudes intended to lubricate their listeners. De Rojas’ original title, the Comedia de Calisto y Melibea, molted in subsequent editions into the Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, for the work, now known simply as Celestina or La Celestina, is indeed a comedy with - spoiler alert! - tragic consequences: nearly everyone dies, leaving at the end only Melibea’s grief-stricken father, Pleberio, who, in a scene of regret, solitude and anguish no less powerful and apocalyptic than the conclusion of King Lear, rails against the world as “a web of deceit, a wilderness, a home to ferocious beasts, a game played by cheats and tricksters, a treacherous marsh, a realm of thorns, a craggy peak, stony ground, a meadow full of serpents, a flowering orchard without fruit, a fount of tribulation, a river of tears, a sea of misery, toil without profit, sweet poison, vain hopes, fake cheer and true sorrow.”

Despite this pessimism, there’s no lack of wit in Celestina, which takes a bear’s paw swipe at a broad swath of Spanish society, cutting off power and hypocrisy at the knees with freewheeling, libidinous, scalding humor. Among de Rojas’ most daring criticisms are those putting Christians, Muslims and Jews on equal footing as all being children of Adam and Eve, with an explicit rejection of the notion of “noble blood”; implicating the clergy in corruption, sexual hypocrisy, and injustice (“spending time in church is the quickest way to get a reputation as a hypocrite”); an implicit rejection of the barbarity of Inquisitional persecution, with its “use of lying witnesses and torture;” and scathing attacks on the abuses and insensitivity of the rich - “bloodsuckers, ungrateful, rude leeches who ignore services received and never reward them” and who “break their servants’ backs with hollow pledges.” In de Rojas’ tale of love and woe, there is even a suggestion that God is “an enemy of reason.” However he fits into the raunchy, bawdy world of Celestina, God ranks as rather less influential in the lives of de Rojas' characters than are the chaotic eruptions of their own sexual passions.

The Penguin edition translated by Peter Bush contains an informative and succinct introduction by novelist Juan Goytisolo, who notes de Rojas’ break with prior literary forms and challenges more academic and reductionist responses to Celestina as having served mostly to obscure or vitiate the its liveliness, radicalism and striking modernity. As biographical information on de Rojas is abundant on the Internet, I’ll just cull a few key details from Goytisolo’s introduction. Born in the 1470’s near Toledo, de Rojas came of age at a critical moment in Spain, coinciding with the discovery of the New World, the defeat of the last Arab stronghold in Iberia, and most significantly, given de Rojas’ Jewish roots, the founding of the Inquisition and the edict expelling Jews who had not converted to Christianity. De Rojas’ own family of conversos suffered greatly under the purges; several were imprisoned and executed, including de Rojas’ father-in-law, burned at the stake for suggesting there might be nothing after death. Peter Bush notes that the young de Rojas, admitted to the University of Salamanca, “was entering a world of learning that was keeping at bay the Inquisition,” and it was in this corner of liberality in Inquisitorial Spain that Celestina was conceived in shrouded circumstances when de Rojas was only in his mid-twenties. Goytisolo addresses the remarkable range of literary talents on display in the work – its intense vitality of language, use of markedly different registers and interior psychologies for memorably drawn characters, and the weaving into the narrative of a complexity of overlapping meanings (on a purely lexical level, the double-entendre on display in Celestina is relentless and obscenely funny) – but focuses primarily on the work’s radicalism in terms of both its path-breaking form – neither novel nor theater piece - and its subversion of the Inquisitorial milieu in which it was written.

What gives Celestina much of its fresh, modern quality is precisely the subversive manner by which de Rojas brings off his sharp criticisms of class, privilege, power, and the Christian clergy. His strategies for conveying these dangerous ideas make for a fascinating history of the book’s first years of publication. The anonymous first edition contained a postscript describing the first chapter as a discovered manuscript that Celestina’s author claims he recognized immediately for its “beauty, its subtle artifice, its pliant but strong metal, the way it had been wrought, an elegant style, never before in evidence in our Castilian language,” and for which he then, over two weeks’ holiday, composed a continuation of an additional 15 chapters. Goytisolo points out that while “the paternity of the first chapter” – with minor stylistic and linguistic differences from the rest of the work – “remains a matter for doubt and debate,” the case for de Rojas as sole author is convincing. Celestina’s immense popularity resulted in a series of notations in subsequent editions in which de Rojas first reveals his identity by means of an acrostic, then later provides tortured, non-apologetic apologies for some of the book’s more audacious ideas in what appears to be an effort to minimize his culpability for such irreverence[i]. Readers of Don Quixote will recognize one influence of Celestina in Cervantes’ use of a similar obfuscation of authorship, and the indeterminate quality of Celestina’s origins and its deliberate, ironic subversion of narrative authority prefigure, by 500 years, the unstable texts and meta-fictional elements of contemporary world literature.

Celestina’s great humanism, its dark faith in equality and justice, also underscore its remarkable modernity. Its most appealing characters are those of the lower castes: servants, prostitutes, and those most vulnerable to the hypocritical dictates of power. Celestina herself is an iconic figure (small wonder that early audiences latched onto her, resulting in the change of title to bear her name). Though eyed with suspicion by many she encounters and bearing qualities easily reducible to caricature as crone, Celestina ultimately comes across as complexly human. An imaginatively resourceful woman, she has used her wits and her body to strategize a broad range of means of survival catalogued at length in the first chapter, including needlework; the manufacture of perfumes, cosmetics, creams and “unguents to turn your stomach;” the mending of “five thousand” maidenheads so skillfully that “when the French ambassador paid a call she sold him one of her wenches three times as a virgin;” and, most germane to the plot, serving as a go-between for lovers, with her collection of “stuff for curing love and making love work: gut from a stag’s heart, snakes’ tongues, quails’ heads, asses’ brains, horses’ foetal scrapings, babies’ crown, Moorish beans, lodestone, hangman’s rope, ivy berries, hedgehog prickles, badger’s foot, fern spore, stone from an eagle’s nest and a thousand other items.” To most, all of this is “pure stuff and nonsense,” but the reader can’t help but take Celestina at face value: “I’m an old woman as God made me, and not the worst by a long chalk. I live by my trade as any other woman and honestly at that.” One gets glimpses of the dual role Celestina has played with the young women around her, serving not simply as procuress for her own ends but as a sort of rescuer, protector and mother figure, as conveyed in a remarkable scene in the book’s ninth chapter in which Celestina patiently listens to two of her young charges, Areúsa and Elicia, speak frankly of the difficulties of their economic choices, their vulnerability to men and the whims of abusive masters, all the various injustices of their low position and their gender:

Women who serve noble ladies never enjoy love’s thrall and sweet rewards. They can never consort with their equals or have close friends they can ask about the simple things in life: ‘What did you eat for dinner?’, ‘You pregnant or what?’…

What a pain, how hard, how painful, to have ‘my lady’ on your lips all the time! ...They never call you by your proper names, only: ‘Bitch, do this!’ ‘Bitch, do that!’… Their greatest pleasure is to shout and their bliss is to find fault.

These glimpses of everyday conflicts mingled with obscene humor, quick intelligence and caustic criticisms reveal a depth of humanity and lay bare a rich complexity of social interactions, allowing the commonality of human experience and the struggle against power and injustice to emerge as the real stars of Celestina, Its resounding and often hilarious affirmation of the lives of common people in juxtaposition to the institutional forces that oppress them makes Celestina as relevant today as is its surprisingly bleak modern view of a chaotic and hostile universe. The debt owed to Celestina by subsequent works of Spanish and of world literature is clear in its profound use of irony, irreverence, and psychology, its innovative, radical literary form and its subversive critical stratagems. On a personal level, I could not have been more thrilled to discover this work for the first time. And if, improbably, Celestina indeed fell to my attention from out of the sky, then someone up there has one incredibly diabolical sense of humor.

Addendum July 17, 2012: Here's a link to a terrific interview with translator Peter Bush by Scott Esposito. 

Pablo Picasso, La  Celestina 1904 

[i] A detailed account of Celestina’s first years, gently demolishing the arguments of those who consider the likelihood of separate authorship of the first chapter and characterizing de Rojas’ subsequent prefaces to the work as revealing a mounting and palpable sense of fear - is put forth in the exquisitely researched opening chapter of Stephen Gilman’s The Art of La Celestina, a book I picked up in the wave of enthusiasm I felt after finishing de Rojas’ work.