Introduction: A Journey around the Picaresque Novel

Postmodern Studies, January 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

Introduction: A Journey around the Picaresque Novel


"The world wants to be deceived; therefore, let it be deceived." This sentence, more than any other, can describe my first impressions in dealing with the literary trickster: the more I became acquainted with the picaresque anti-hero, the more I enjoyed my role of indulgent victim of a rogue's derisive ruses. Readers of rogue tales like me come to realise that they are dealing with a fraud who nevertheless aspires to win their approval or, at least, their sympathy, in an endless tug of war of contrasting feelings and excuses for moral compromise. With time, I have learnt to approach and decipher the intricate personifications of the petty criminal as both a poetic vehicle and an ideological mouthpiece of discontent and blatant, though ambiguous rebellion. In my quest for the legacy of rogue narrative, then, I have come across eight examples of contemporary picaresque novels in Italian and in English and paired them in each of the ensuing four chapters. However, every investigation of present forms of the picaresque has kept unwinding towards a common thread in earlier, traditional manifestations of the genre. The picaresque novel definitely marked the earliest stages of Western long prose narrative, with Miguel de Cervantes as its most sublime interpreter and desecrator. In the fascinating figure of Don Quixote, Cervantes crossed the limits of picaresque tradition and portrayed a new image of humanity in the hidalgo's courage in opposing a visionary world of outdated chivalric values to the cynical disillusions of a colourless reality. I often had the impression that in the picaresque these two instances, vision and brutal reality, converge and at times mesh into a continuum, which propels the whole story and gives it universal thrust. This ideal bond between the rogue tale and Cervantes led to the rediscovery of the great Spanish author by eighteenth-century novelists in France and Britain who also admired picaresque fiction and creatively tested its conventions.

Despite some affinities with ancient Greek and Latin literature, from Aristophanes' comedies, to the prose of Petronius and Apuleius,1 or with medieval genres like carnivalesque poetry, mystery plays or comic-realistic fiction, the picaresque novel, with its set of tacit compositional rules and motifs, officially flourished in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish literature. Its national character is still a debatable issue. To some Iberian scholars like Gustavo Correa the picaresque - la picaresca in Spanish, the feminine agreement referring to the text-type of the novela, either a novel or lengthy narrative - should be considered as an exclusively sixteenth-century Spanish domain, while other works from different ages or countries simply re-elaborate the Spanish archetype.2 Outside Spain, scholars like Alexander Blackburn and Robert Alter tend to be more ecumenical and include later developments and literary areas. Anyway, there is no doubt about the ground-breaking impact of the Spanish picaresque in comic literature. As a matter of fact, earlier prose like that of Boccaccio, Bandello or Sacchetti tends to align with the picaresque; yet, a relevant difference between those narratives and the picaresque tale is not only the relative shortness of the former and the fact that even novellas are not extended rogue autobiographies, but, more importantly, the picaresque storyteller, unlike Boccaccio's narrators, professes a one-sided moral direction, although this stance is hardly defensible. In Boccaccio the variety of ethical directions is presented by the protagonists as equally acceptable, persuasive viewpoints, whereas what the picaresque narrators say often clashes with what they show: it is more a case of internal disagreement than a polyphony of discordant voices.3 The Spanish picaresque sensibility is the product of a tangled historical context, replete with social conflicts and religious tensions, in which outward conduct suppresses private convictions, and many instances of censorship involving several writers of rogues' tales testify to how often this narrative delved into the most unpleasant aspects of reality. …

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