Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Phantom Pre-Texts and Fictional Authors: Sidi Hamid Benengeli, Don Quijote and the Metafictional Conventions of Chivalric Romances

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Phantom Pre-Texts and Fictional Authors: Sidi Hamid Benengeli, Don Quijote and the Metafictional Conventions of Chivalric Romances

Article excerpt

ONE Of THE MOST interesting aspects of 'Don Quijote, and one that most endears Cervantes' work to us at the beginning of the theoretically hip twenty-first century, is the simultaneous presence in the text of a fiction (the story of Don Quijote and Sancho and their adventures) and a metafiction (the story of the book itself, how it comes into existence and what its ontological status and concrete properties are).

Chivalric romance has a well-defined metafictional tradition. Virtually all the books of chivalry recount the story of their own origins and how they came to be in the hands of the reader. The Castilian romances all purport to be the work of a trustworthy historian who has found a pre-existing manuscript written in a foreign language, which contains the fiction itself, which he then either translates himself or causes to be translated, and then presents to the reader in the reader's language.

It is generally accepted that the topos of the found manuscript, the foreign language and subsequent translation goes back to stories of the Trojan War that circulated in late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Scholarship then traces the presence of this topos through the medieval Grail romances and the Arthurian tradition up to the sixteenth-century Castilian romances of chivalry. The idea is to locate these books within a culturally prestigious and textually complex tradition that reaches back to the founding event of European narrative (Roubaud Benichou, Le Roman de chevalerie, 63).

Chivalric romance is the literature of Christian European feudalism. Its ideological function is to celebrate the ethics, values and exploits of the warrior aristocracy that tan Europe during the Middle Ages. The extraordinary popularity of chivalric romance in the sixteenth century is a function of the transition from medieval to early modern civilization and the rise of new classes and new forms of social and economic organization that began to displace the warrior aristocracy as the protagonist of history.

With Amadis de Gaula (1508) we enter the orbit of the enormously popular Castilian romances of chivalry that constituted Don Quijote's favorite reading. Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo presents himself in 1508 as the editor of the first three libros of the work, and as the translator of the fourth. Everyone seems to distinguish between Libros 1-3 (Montalvo really an editor of real pre-existing texts) and Libro 4 (Montalvo the author of a work of fiction which he presents as a pre-existing text). This is Las Sergas de Esplandian (1510), which recounts the exploits of Amadis' son, Esplandian. According to Montalvo, the book was found buried in a stone tomb beneath a hermitage not far from Constantinople. It was written on parchment in a language that turned out to be Greek. It was brought to Spain by a Hungarian merchant. The fictional author is a certain Maestro Elisabat, a character in the earlier books, who claims to have personally witnessed the "sergas" he sets down. I should point out that California, where I live and work, was actually invented by Montalvo and existed in the Serqas de Esplandian years before it was discovered on the ground by an expedition sent from Mexico by Hernan Cortes.

Of the eighteen Castilian romances of chivalry published between 1508 and 1589, thirteen purport to have been written originally in Greek, and one each in Latin, English, an unspecified foreign language, and Arabic. It is worth noting the overwhelming presence of Greek as the presumed original language (Eisenberg, Romances; Gayangos, "Discurso;" Lopez Navia, La, ficcion autorial).

One of the interpretative difficulties that arise is due to the fact that some of the texts we read are well and truly modernized versions or translations; that is, the phantom pre-text is real. Other texts we read are based on fictional, non-existent, truly phantom pre-texts. And as always, when it is a question of texts, there is no internal evidence in the text we read that allows us to identify and distinguish the real from the truly phantom pre-texts. …

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