Originally published: 1599
Author: Mateo Alemán
Genre: Picaresque Fiction
Translator: James Mabbe
Published in English: 1622

Guzman de Alfarache - Mateo AlemánI’m so sad to see there’s no papercopy of this book in English. I’ve found this, though,…
What’s neat about that, it’s that the translation into English by James Mabbe happened close in time to the publication of Guzmán de Alfarache, therefore the English is as old to our English, as the Spanish is to the Spanish of today.

I got it free for my Kindle, but it would have been very neat to have a paper edition, (the one published by Cátedra, in two volumes), with footnotes.

I loved reading this great feat of literature. I’m sad also, since there’s nobody I know of to discuss it with. Very few reviews, and some who couldn’t finish the two volumes (who are three Books amounting to over a 1,000 pages.) There’s something in long books that cannot happen in short books. I’ve read El Lazarillo de Tormes, and it’s, for lack of a better example, a meager appetizer when compared to this banquet of a book that is Guzmán de Alfarache.

Similar to Don Quijote I’d say, in the way it envelopes you in the narrative, with its many twists and turns, other stories built in the main one, specially in book 1. Like Don Quijote, I believe the first book prepares us for books 2 and 3, where the narrative starts changing the tone. Our Guzmán is growing up. His adventures and choices of the first 400 pages, become a crust of his own persona now. One starts to feel the grip of fate, or that which we call the consequences of our decisions and our actions.

I felt ‘tired’ of Guzmán’s criminal nature, not tired of reading, I felt as he felt. Now the jovial tone of the beginning became dark. At one point, I thought I was reading about one of those corrupted CEOs or politicians of our century, about scam after scam, all in costumes and a Renaissance background! I thought how similar human nature was at this time in history, and how different the background and environment.

The end portion, when he is at the gallows and he repents and changes heart completely, was strange. It was credible, I won’t say it wasn’t. It simply happened so fast. After 800 pages of picaresque turned into a life of misfortunes suffered or self inflicted, our Guzmán decides to put an end to that life. He almost died trying to be good (nobody believes this time he is simply doing good, it’s like a cry wolf situation), but he is doing good, and he doesn’t die. He lives to tell the tale of his life, and to tell us what not to do, how not to be.

It’s impossible to give you a just account of this book. The feel, the language, what it contains, is larger than life. I may tell you barely about the plot, but the reflections, rants, humor, stories, philosophical digressions, descriptions, morals, action, incredible events, and everything that takes place, and HOW it’s told, are something you either want to experience or not. If you decide to experience it, you won’t regret it.

I give it four and a half stars because books like this are unique. When we read books in Spanish in the sixteen hundreds, or late fifteen hundreds, we don’t have them by the thousand, nor even by the hundred. Time has left us with a sample, some books which we know were also popular and well read at the time, and they are our precious jewels, the bastions of a bygone era, and a bygone language. That is why it’s so amazing we also have an English translation of the time.

When reading a book like this, not only the plot is unique to the times, the color and flavor of the book, but the style is different, so different and yet so modern. Mateo Alemán mixes adventure with philosophy seamlessly.  The book takes you through a rich life, and the changes are not just external, but internal. Guzmán goes through changes, and registers all these observations about virtue, love, life, good, evil, friendship, society, and what not. As I said, there’s many stories inside the story, action and reflections. If you have read Robinson Crusoe, (first published in 1719), even though a century later, you can get an idea of what I mean by that mix of action and philosophical pondering.  Also, if you have read Lazarillo de Tormes, an anonymous picaresque book published in 1554, one can say Guzmán de Alfarache is like Lazarillo multiplied by 10 in extension, in years covered, a sort of Lazarillo on steroids. By the way, if you feel intimidated or not willing to attempt this book, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes is a short and perfect example of this genre.

I enjoyed this book very much. Long books may be off putting to some, (they were to me at one point), but not so much anymore -if they are the right long book. It’s a great pleasure to have grown in reading enough as to enjoy books that you will inhabit for quite some time, they become long known friends, to the point they stop appearing long and impossible, but they become comforting and familiar.

Should you be willing to give Guzmán some dedication and attention, you’d be recompensed tenfold.

2 thoughts on “Guzmán de Alfarache

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