Lazarillo is born in a grain mill operated by his father located on the Tormes river. His mother took in laundry. Eating was a problem, partially solved by appropriating equine fodder that happened to fall into their possession. The father soon died and, his mother absconding shortly thereafter, Lazarillo was given to a blind beggar as an assistant, condemned to travel the roads and to aid his master in conning money out of the peasantry and townsfolk. It’s an episodic existence, replete with unpleasant events, mostly having to do with the struggle to acquire food. In one inn, Lazarillo steals a sausage from his master, who is suspicious, and, sniffing Lazarillo’s mouth while looking for evidence, receives the contents of the thief’s stomach full in the face. Lazarillo becomes adept at stealing food and wine from the blind man’s luggage, using a straw to suck up wine, and drilling holes in the food locker to weasel out crumbs and morsels to satisfy his ravenous hunger. Many beatings and punishments later, Lazarillo fools the master into knocking himself silly by having him, in the attempts to jump across a creek, leap headlong into a bridge buttress. Using the opportunity to escape, Lazarillo runs away to the next town, where he is taken up by a local clergyman as a boy-of-all-trades. This cleric is even stingier than the last master, feeding Lazarillo one onion every four days. All available food is stored in a large chest, which suffers ever more devious and clever assaults by the starving recruit, who ultimately survived by blaming his alimentary incursions on mice. One night, discovered in one of his periodic raids on the chest, he suffers a blow on the head from the priest’s club and is unconscious for three days. After waking, he leaves town and looks for another master.
Arriving in Toledo, he is in a parlous state, begging and pawing through garbage, when he is “hired” by a local squire. His new boss takes him home to a house with no furniture and no food. Once again, Lazarillo is forced to extremes to feed himself and the squire also, as the latter is too noble to work. He is the owner of a piece of land and considers himself too elevated to worry about food, clothing, or residential essentials. In short, he behaves as if he were a peer of the realm, stuffed full of honor and vanity. Several months later, Lazarillo is arrested because the squire has skipped town to avoid paying two months rent and has left his servant to suffer the consequences. But the neighbors rescue him, attributing to the squire the responsibility and Lazarillo is free to go.
Lazarillo is acquired by several masters over the ensuing months, the last of which is a pardoner, a seller of papal bulls, or indulgences, as they are called: bits of manuscript supposedly signed by Catholic officialdom, forgiving the owner of any malfeasance or crime he may have committed, and ensuring his eventual acceptance into paradise. More of an observer than an aide, Lazarillo describes how the pardoner operates: in collusion with a constable, he begins a violent argument over the legitimacy of his indulgences and gives them away free, supposedly atoning for his dishonesty. The constable falls over foaming at the mouth and the swindler places an indulgence on his forehead at which point the constable arises, restored to health, thereby amazing the observers, who hastily push money onto the pair, bargaining with each other over the few remaining scraps.
Lazarillo’s life improves a bit after he finds work with a tambourine painter. He is able to save a little money, buys a donkey and fairly quickly establishes a business hauling water for the townspeople. Four years later, he marries the local Archpriest’s daughter and doesn’t live happily ever after, as she has a wandering eye. But in pursuit of a peaceful existence, he ignores the evidence and cultivates a philosophical point of view.
After reading The Unfortunate Traveller several posts ago, this book has given me another view of the same era, and i have found much of what i read previously about the period substantiated. Just at the beginning of mercantilism and industry (the 16th c.), societies all over Europe were having to change standards and adjust to new and upsetting ideas, having to do with the duties of governments to populations and the roles of church and military in recognizing the dire poverty of the lower classes commonly afflicting the entire western culture. Swaggering nobility lasted for too long in Spain, and, in spite of the wealth stolen from the newly discovered American countries, the entire government was submerged into a governless swamp. This state of affairs was also noted by William Beckford in one of his later diaries (in his visit to Madrid), which denoted the decline in the arts and the disillusionment of the ruling classes. It was enlightening to read this very first, according to most authorities, picaresque novel (written in 1525 but not published until 1555) and to note how it’s themes have been echoed in other works, such as Cervantes and the plays of Lope de Vega. Literature was an important mechanism that reflected the miseries of the country and probably was an important element in it’s eventual improvement. In some areas, anyway…