Cervantes's Portuguese Lover
The caricature of the heartbroken Portuguese lover is a commonplace of European literature, and it is no surprise to find
him cropping up in the works of Cervantes. But, as is so often the case with Cervantes, when he draws on the conventional,
the result is far from routine. This paper takes an overdue look at one of these archetypal Portuguese lovers, a minor character
in Cervantes’s late prose romance Persiles y Sigismunda, and asks what role he plays in the work and why Cervantes thought it worth the trouble of including him.
Persiles y Sigismunda was Cervantes’s last completed work, finished in haste just a few days before his death on 23 April 1616, and published posthumously
in Madrid by Juan de la Cuesta the following year. For readers who know Cervantes primarily as the author of Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), a burlesque chivalric romance, or even as the writer of a much more urbane collection of short novels, the
Novelas ejemplares (1613), a brief glance at the opening pages of the Persiles comes as something of a shock. For this is the only work by a one-handed Spanish author which is set in the Arctic Circle.
The first two books recount the maritime wanderings of a group of international fugitives around Iceland, Greenland and Scandinavia
before they find their way down to Lisbon and thence overland through Spain and France to Rome, where the pilgrimage ends
in recognition, redemption and Christian marriage at the end of book four.
The key narrative driver of the first book of the Persiles is the destruction by fire of the Barbaric Island, the isla bárbara, in chapter four. The inhabitants of this island are ruthless pirates who roam the seas in pursuit of the most beautiful
women and the most handsome men. The hearts of the men will be cut out, dried and ground up into a potion. The man who can
drink this without gagging will marry the most beautiful captive maiden and beget the hero who will lead the barbarians to
world domination. The infiltration of this island by Periandro dressed as a woman provokes a violent sexual jealousy between
two of the principal barbarians, and the resulting civil war leads to a conflagration which destroys the island.
Among the evacuees from the fire are three characters whose presence in these northerly latitudes requires some explanation:
Antonio, the Spaniard (chapters five to seven); Rutilio, the Italian (chapters eight and nine); and Manuel de Sosa Coitiño,
from Portugal (chapter ten). These three ‘mediterranean narratives’ occupy some six chapters of book one and are told in succession,
virtually without a break. Their length, proximity and prominence in the structure of the first book can hardly be accidental.
They must be there for a purpose, although that purpose is less easy to discern than their distinct, and distinctive, collective
Antonio’s story is about as close as this novel ever comes to being routine. Born in one of the best, though unspecified,
provinces of Spain, of rich parents of middling nobility, Antonio pursues a military career in Flanders, Germany and Italy.
Returning home in triumph, honoured by the Emperor, he becomes embroiled in a dispute with another young nobleman, his social
superior, over correct forms of address. The other man patronises him by calling him ‘vos’; Antonio replies with a heavily
ironic ‘vuesa señoría’; swords are drawn and the other man is injured. Antonio flees to Germany, then back to Spain and on
to Lisbon, where he gets a ship to England. On the ship he is drawn into a second quarrel with the crew, who cast him loose
in the ship’s boat. He rows for six days and nights before being overcome by a heavy sleep, drifts close to an island but
is warned off by some wolves, and eventually he is washed up on the shore of the isla bárbara. He falls in love with the barbarous woman who nurses him back to health, teaches her his religion and language, and she
bears him two children, a son, also called Antonio, and a daughter, Ricla. The family has lived on the island ever since.
Rutilio’s story presents more difficulties. Imprisoned for absconding with one of his young female dancing pupils, he is rescued
from jail by a witch who coaxes him onto a cloak and flies him in just over four hours from Siena to Norway. On arrival she
assumes the form of a wolf, tries to make love to him, and as he kills her she resumes her earlier form. He is taken in by
a fellow Italian who teaches him a new profession as merchant, and in pursuit of this profession he is shipwrecked on the
Barbaric Island. He, too, has lived on the island ever since.
Manuel de Sosa Coitiño’s story is, if anything, stranger still. From Lisbon, and also a soldier, he falls hopelessly in love
with the girl next door. He proposes marriage but her father says she is too young and must wait two years. After two years
of further military service he returns to Lisbon to claim his bride. A ceremony is prepared in the convent of La Madre de
Dios, but Leonora breaks the terrible news that she has decided to become a bride of Christ: ‘Yo no os dejo por ningún hombre
de la tierra, sino por uno del cielo’ (103).1 He holds back his tears and cries out the words of Luke 10:42: ‘Maria optimam partem elegit.’ At this culminating point,
when his narrative is at its most emotional, he dies. For Auristela, a key protagonist and appreciative listener throughout
this book, sorrow at the death of ‘el enamorado portugués’ is mixed with disappointment: ‘now we shall never know how he got
to the barbaric island’, she comments with uncharacteristic insensitivity.
Even within the conventions of early modern narrative, this is a rum set of answers to the question ‘what are you doing here?’
Antonio’s answer, leaving aside the youthful colour of the two quarrels and the detail of the speaking wolves, is another
way of saying ‘I’ve lived here all my adult life’. Heaven knows what we are to make of Rutilio’s contention that he flew to
Scandinavia on a witch’s cloak. And Manuel de Sosa does not live long enough to answer the question at all. Put another way,
Antonio’s narration puts relatively little strain on the reader’s credulity, being almost entirely within the bounds of verisimilitude,
and if we allow for the conventions of the period, even the talking wolves can be accommodated;2 Rutilio’s appears to fly in the face of plausibility unless we assume that he is a thoroughly unreliable witness; and Manuel
de Sosa’s death before he can even bring his listeners up to date raises the question of why he is in the book at all, since
he appears to have been created solely to tell his unfinished story.
Persiles y Sigismunda, like most of Cervantes’s work, is not just about what happens, or what is said to have happened, or what the events mean,
or even whether what happens in the book is plausible or not. Persiles y Sigismunda is certainly crammed with incident. It has a cast of thousands which has to be culled from time to time to keep it manageable.
Many of the characters become narrators in their own right and some of them, such as Periandro, whose narration occupies some
ten chapters of book two, hold the stage for days at a time. The geographical structure of the Persiles is overlaid with such strong moral and religious significance that parts of the book come close to allegory [Forcione];3 it is not difficult to read each of the mediterranean narratives as examples of hot-headed young men condemned to cool their
heels in the frozen north while they learn the error of their ways. And, as we have seen, much of the narrative material presented
in the Persiles poses considerable challenges to the envelope of plausibility into which Cervantes insisted that his fiction should be folded.
Persiles y Sigismunda is all these things ―a complex and compelling drama of huge ambition and almost universal scope, told through a kaleidoscope
of largely first-person narratives, fragmented and chronologically confused, placing high levels of strain on the credulity
of the audience, but subject to a firm overriding moral purpose―, but it is much more. Throughout its long and tortuous journey,
the Persiles is a sustained meditation on the nature of narrative and the many technical challenges which are posed by the apparently
simple act of telling a story. Large parts of books two and three are explicitly about how to handle length and variety, for
example, as Periandro’s almost interminable exposition of the events leading up to his first appearance at the court of King
Policarpo are greeted with alternate expressions of appreciation from the ladies and boredom from the gentlemen. Book three,
similarly, offers a number of memorable interventions by the narrator as well as Periandro on topics such as the correct balance
between plot and incident, descriptive detail and imaginative drive.4
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Taken together, the stories of Antonio, Rutilio and Manuel de Sosa form a small anthology of apprentice pieces, each dealing
with a specific technical or ontological issue, in ascending order of complexity. In outline, Antonio’s story appears to present
little difficulty: it is a first-person account of his life; it is told in chronological order; and it brings the reader up
to the present day. But it is quite long; so long, in fact, that Auristela’s nurse Cloelia keels over and dies while he is
telling it, and although the text does not actually say that she died of boredom, her death and the need to suspend Antonio’s
account while they bury her, do provide a welcome respite. Similarly, Ricla’s growing awareness of the length of his account
and the restlessness of his listeners prompts her to take over the narrative once he has reached a point in the chronology
when she is able to take over. So what looks like a standard piece of autobiography is in fact discreetly divided into three
phases, and the third phase is not told by the protagonist at all.
I have argued elsewhere that Rutilio’s story, particularly the journey by cloak ―the part which poses the greatest challenge
to the reader’s credulity― is miraculous in form, although not in any religious sense.5 The miracle lies not in the journey or the mode of transport, but in the telling and the listening. Rutilio’s account is,
in the language of Austin and Searle,6 a performative speech act, one which brings into being the reality it describes and forms part of a collaborative project
in which ‘the author needs the compliance of the reader’ (Riley, p. 194). In Rutilio’s story, Cervantes has given us an image
of the writer and the narrative process; of the author and the listener as collaborators, of the narrative pact that exists
between them, and how the narrator carries out his primary task of persuading listeners to believe things which, in the ordinary
course of events, they would not.
In similar ways, Manuel de Sosa’s story underlines the close relationship that exists between real life and narrative. Just
as Rutilio shows by verbal sleight of hand that words can constitute reality, the example of Manuel de Sosa is that of a man
whose life is nothing but his story. His life is entirely coterminous with its narration, a point which brutally underlined
when his unfinished life story is cut short by his death. It is possible that Cervantes is making a witty comment here on
the influential model on which the Persiles is based, for this work ‘dares to compete with Heliodorus’ as Cervantes himself comments in the Prologue to the Novelas ejemplares. And the Aethiopica of Heliodorus is famous for opening its narrative in medias res. The Persiles imitates this technique on the grand scale as the forward chronology of the main plot is constantly interrupted by flashbacks
which gradually reveal the hidden truth of the novel’s origins. Unusually, in the case of Manuel de Sosa, we have a character
whose life story ends, rather than begins, in medias res.
But Cervantes is undoubtedly doing more than jesting with a technical convention. In the life of Manuel de Sosa, Cervantes
also provides a rationale for what makes his fiction most life-like in its profoundest sense. The novel opens with an apparently
random gathering of disparate characters from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Poland and England.
As the novel progresses, many more will be added, including some French, Lithuanians, Poles and a Scottish countess. In each
case, the key questions are those posed by Transila: ‘¿quién sois, a qué venís y qué es lo que buscáis?’ (62) Each character
is obliged to respond with some form of retrospective account which turns their life into narrative.
This way of generating long narratives is often dismissed by modern readers as over-reliant on coincidence, but in fact nothing
could be more common. Few people know each other ‘from the beginning’. Ordinary people’s lives intersect in medias res on a daily basis. Everyone we meet comes to us with a pre-history, from which an extraordinary narrative can often be made.
What interests Cervantes about these encounters is the hidden logic that lies behind the questions that get asked on these
occasions: who are you? where have you come from? how did you get here? The example of Manuel de Sosa’s sadly abbreviated
life/story subtly underlines the fact that just as life can be turned into art, so art can beget life.
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