PICARESQUE AND PICARA
The writer had no choice; she’d stumbled upon her genre. And my creative myth. I had to be part of the canon, even if we deviated in a few choice matters. And when she looked up the term and gorged more her fair share of Picaresquenovels, she found she was channeling this very thing. A larger archetypal pattern was emerging; the autonomous female. Of course, she wanted more; she wanted proof.
‘Can’t you just stick to the Cybercyde? It’s so much simpler.’
‘Well, check it out.’
I will her to the cyberpage where she diligently memorised the following rules, whereby, according to the traditional view of Thrall and Hibbard (first published in 1936), seven qualities distinguish the picaresque novel or narrative form, all or some of which may be employed for effect by the author:
1/ A picaresque narrative is usually written in first person as an autobiographical account.
2/ The main character is often of low character or social class.
3/ He or she gets by with wit and rarely deigns to hold a job.
4/ There is no plot. The story is told in a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes.
5/ There is little if any character development in the main character. Once a picaro, always a picaro. His or her circumstances may change but they rarely result in a change of heart.
6/ The picaro’s story is told with a plainness of language or realism. Satire might sometimes be a prominent element.
7/ The behaviour of a picaresque hero or heroine stops just short of criminality. Carefree or immoral rascality positions the picaresque hero as a sympathetic outsider, untouched by the false rules of society.
Anne K. Kaler and Alexander Blackburn became her constant companions during the twelve months from her accidental discovery to the present moment, where she insists on going through it all again for the sake of her reflective essay, a hybrid beast with which she is still grappling. As she is now so fond of quoting;
Only as an archetypal pattern of autonomy does the picara pursue the hero question common to human nature. The picara seeks her identity through the masculine outward quest for the hero; her call to action is her abandonment as a child or wife; her mentor is her confidante; her magical weapons are her wit and sexuality; her trip to the underworld is her criminal career; her adventures are her wanderings; her obstacles use her warrior abilities; her return to this world appears in the retelling of her memoir. Yet she lacks some particulars of the hero’s journey for she never finds peace or reconciliation as heroes do.
That’s it. That’s me. And there’s more; Since the birth of the modern novel more than four hundred years ago, the myth of the picaro has been a continuous part of fiction, though often in modified form and frequently as an implied polarity to the literature of unity and love.
‘Then why don’t you just do an historical paper on the development of the picara?’
‘That’s not all that interests me.’
‘It’s quite an undertaking in itself.’
‘Well, I can use it for a skeleton. Or a road map.’
‘If it helps you make up your mind. It makes me a little dizzy, like a Syrian child bride on Naxos.’
‘Look, I thought all this up before I read it in a book.’
‘Fine. But you don’t need to stick to it to the letter.’
‘I always thought my heroine would individuate.’
‘But lookee here.’ I leaned over her shoulder and highlighted the passage in luminous yellow;
The picara neglects the complementary inward feminine quest toward spiritualty – the creativity symbolized by motherhood. This quest is seldom accomplished by the picara; she ignores the awakening to motherhood, letting her tricks serve as her creativity outlet; she is too busy surviving to contemplate her sins; her penitence is always suspiciously self-serving; she never reconciles with her society or her nature; she is trapped in a survival mode, struggling for an autonomy neither her nature nor society will grant her. If she follows the masculine quest more readily it is because her nature is one of action rather than of contemplation. Still, she does rely strongly on the intuitive side of her personality to accomplish her contradictory goals of security and autonomy.
But it’s deeper than that. Much deeper. The picaresque novel, my writer discovered, traces its origins to Spanish conversos in the early Sixteen Century. I remembered characters better than the authors; in fact, one of the most famous, Lazarillo de Torres, after whom my writer unwittingly renamed me, was written by Anonymous. Fernando de Rojas, author of La Celestina, a picara if ever I saw one, was most definitely a converso – a Christian of Jewish origin.
Blackburn speaks of Fernando as:
A person who might have abandoned one faith without gaining another, a potentially lost soul skeptical of traditional dogma and morality. He was a member of a caste subject to intense scorn and suspicion, forced into a marginal position within his world and reacting to persecution in a number of characterising ways, among them the cultivation of irony. The converso situation held the possibility of a counterculture or community of those experienced or conditioned enough to relish the hidden import of the ironist’s language.
‘There they go with the humour again. Do you think it’s a survival mechanism?’ I asked.
‘Must be. Outsiders in every age have used satire as a cover for tragic truths.’
‘Well, Blackburn says the conversos lived as marginal men bearing fearful resemblance to our own Orwellian one of Big Brothers, Newspeak, Thought Police, and doublethink. As marginal men, they were condemned to live in two worlds and compelled ‘to assume in relation to the worlds … the role of a cosmopolitan and strange.’
‘That’s me alright.’
‘To a ‘t’.’
‘So I’m a cover for your take on the present day. A cultural döppelganger of the trickster.’
‘Shhh. You’re giving us away.’
‘That’s why I can’t really do autobiographical fiction. It’s too dangerous. We need to create a new myth.’
‘No such thing.’ I paraphrased Alex. ‘Blackburn says myth criticism comes into play by determining the underlying structure of a basic narrative, recognizing not just a more or less static archetype, such as trickster.’
‘Which is the archetype of the first sense of the myth in picaresque novels.’
‘I know. But look what Campbell says about the dynamic creative mythology of the individual work, rather than the traditional.’
‘It’s much more numinous. Contains more mana.’
‘So we can do what we like, then?’
By dint of these qualities of the picaresque, whispered in the hallowed halls, echoed on the CyberCyde and now manifesting in a canon of novels, academic and literary texts going back to Lazarillo de Tormes and the conversos of Sixteenth Century Spain, channeling the space where Jewish writers, forced to convert to Christianity, maintained their secret faith and forged the genre to satirise their Inquisitive society, the writer meets her mark.