The Spanish Gypsy: The History of a European Obsession

By Gamella, Juan F. | Romani Studies, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Spanish Gypsy: The History of a European Obsession


Gamella, Juan F., Romani Studies


The Spanish Gypsy: The history of a European obsession. Lou CharnonDeutsch. University Park: Penn State Press. 2004. 286 pp. ISBN 0271023597.

Reviewed by Juan F. Gamella

This is a nicely illustrated book written by the well-known Hispanicist Lou Charnon-Deutsch, author of Narratives of Desire: Nineteenth-Century Spanish Fiction by Women (1996). It traces the evolution of a 'cultural icon of surprising power and attraction, that of the Spanish Gypsy, the romantic fantasy of an imagined people that became an obsession for European literature, music and visual arts.

Based on an encyclopedic knowledge of literary and graphic works in English, French and Spanish, the author analyzes-in an accumulative style that sometimes tires the reader-hundreds of items showing how this foreign import came to occupy a crucial 'symbolic space in the Western imaginary'. Although some glaring absences are inevitable, this is a splendid source of references concerning the artistic representation of Spanish Gypsies. But do not expect to learn much about real, historical Gitanos and Gitanas.

The book has five substantive chapters. In the first one Charnon-Deutsch shows conclusively that the fascination of European literature with Calé did not begin with the French Romantics, but with Golden Age Spanish (and Portuguese) novels and plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth century such as La Celestina (1499), Farça das Ciganas (A farce of Gypsy women, 1521), and especially with Cervantes's La gitanilla, one of his most famous short novels (Novelas ejemplares), written in 1610, just one year after the Moriscos or Spanish Muslims were expelled from exhausted, imperial Spain.

In a time of intense vilification and repression of Gypsies, Cervantes's portrayal may seem sympathetic. In fact, La gitanilla somehow transcends racial categories (the daughter of aristocrats is protrayed as a Gypsy), and thus maybe read as promoting humanistic ideals. Charnon-Deutsch argues, however, that this popular novel also contributed much to the perpetuation of the negative Gypsy stereotype. According to the author this is a recurrent trait of European societies that both despised and were fascinated by their minority populations.

Cervantes expanded earlier Gitano motifs (magic, fortune-telling, baby snatching, ability to sing and dance, horse trading and theft) in two major areas. One, the idealization of a roaming life that allowed Gitanos to escape from the encroachments of feudal or bourgeois orders, and two, the glamorization of the irresistible Gypsy woman materialized in the figure of Preciosa, an exceptional young woman 'unwittingly masquerading as a Gypsy', who falls in love with a Gachó, a non-Gypsy aristocrat.

But this novella had a destiny well beyond that of a mere jeu litéraire. Its plot of interethnic desire, temptation and love with its associated changes and exchanges of identity and morality offered immense possibilities of adaptation and transmutation. The model was translated and transformed into hundreds of sequels conforming to the qualms and conventions of varying periods and nations. In the rest of the book Charnon-Deutsh traced the indelible mark left by this 'precious jewel of love', this gendered 'exemplar' of the irresistible Other in the world of printed, graphic and performative arts.

Thus the second chapter presents the discovery of the Spanish Gypsy by French Romantics. Surprisingly, the Gypsy presence, even in places such as Seville, Granada or Cadiz, had been ignored by most travellers of the eighteenth century. Between 1830 and 1860 interest in Spanish Gypsies was revived as a powerful symbol of nonconformity, spontaneity and freedom and 'an object of intense international curiosity' (p. 58).

In this period Spain passed from being a colonial power to a colony of British and French capital. Congruently, the country was described as a land of bullfights, religious superstition, ignorance, poverty, cruel and arbitrary justice, and economic chaos. …

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