Cipion, Berganza, and the Aesopic Tradition

Article excerpt

When near the end of "El casamiento enganoso" Campuzano tells his friend, the licentiate Peralta, that while he was in the hospital he overheard two dogs speaking to each other, Peralta reacts with an outburst of frank incredulity: "!Cuerpo de mi!--replico el Licenciado--. !Si se nos ha vuelto el tiempo de Maricastana, cuando hablaban las calabazas, o el de Isopo, cuando departia el gallo con la zorra y unos animales con otros!" (2: 294). (1) Despite his friend's disbelief, Campuzano insists that the dogs were in fact talking, and that he was not dreaming what he heard. He then gives his friend a notebook containing a near word-for-word transcription of the dogs' conversation, and the contents of the notebook become the "Coloquio de los perros," the story framed by the "Casamiento enganoso."

Peralta's mention of Aesop (2)--whose name will come up again later, this time mentioned by the dog Berganza in the "Coloquio" itself--and the fact that the interlocutors of the "Coloquio" are two talking dogs, have led readers of the novella to speak of it in terms of the work of the ancient Greek author of animal fables. Such comparisons between the "Coloquio" and Aesop have not gone very far, however. Commentators who cite Aesopic fables asa source of the "Coloquio" do it in one of two ways: either they are content to mention Aesopic fables as one of many sources of the novella, and leave it more or less at that, or they mention the Aesopic tradition only to dismiss it as a serious influence on Cervantes in his creation of the dogs Cipion and Berganza. While some of the discussions in the former category have been suggestive, they have not gone far enough in bringing out the important links that exist between the Aesopic fable--the most traditional of genres--and Cervantes' experimental narrative in the form of dialogue.

The first task of this study will be to demonstrate a greater influence of the Aesopic tradition on the "Coloquio" than has been observed hitherto: the Aesopic corpus does more than provide a possible model for the talking dogs Cipion and Berganza. To begin with, critics have ignored the possible influence of the so-called Life of Aesop on the adventures of Cervantes' dog characters. The Life of Aesop, a purported biography of the fabulist, presents readers with an Aesop who, beginning life as a mute slave, was one day magically given the gift of speech, and then proceeded to serve several masters as a servant, philosophical interlocutor, and all-around problem-solver. This Life, used as an introduction to a collection of the fables that was first translated into Castilian in the late fifteenth century, became highly popular in Spain. Modern critics have pointed to the Life's picaresque nature and possible influence on the Spanish picaresque genre as a whole, but have not gone as far as to compare it explicitly to the "Coloquio." While it is impossible to prove without doubt that Cervantes was influenced by the Life of Aesop in composing the "Coloquio," I hope to show that it is highly useful to read the two texts side by side, for the "Coloquio" re-stages, in a highly interesting way, the Life's dismantling of the hierarchy between philosophy and popular literature, between lofty theoretical speculation and base corporeal adventures.

In addition to the possible influence of the Life of Aesop on the "Coloquio," there is also the question of Aesop's fables themselves and their presence in Cervantes' novella. Here again the comparisons are fruitful. We will see that one of the more interesting themes of Aesopic fables is the question of identity--what is "real" about both self and other, and how to guard against possible deception. What the Aesopic fable promises is a way to learn the "true" identity of one's surroundings by means of, paradoxically, a fiction. The "Coloquio" presents an interesting variation on the same paradox: an utterly fantastic story is claimed by its intradiagetic author to be true, and the story presents itself as exemplary. …