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Celestina , by Fernando de Rojas

The Celestina: A Fifteenth-Century Spanish Novel in Dialogue - Rojas Fernando de, Lesley Byrd Simpson


Two pages from an early edition.



In 1499 appeared the first 16 "acts" of the Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, now better known as La Celestina, a work that Juan Goytisolo called "Spanish literature's most audacious and subversive work" in his excellent article celebrating the 500th anniversary of the text's publication:(*)




First published anonymously, then again with the author's name in acrostics, it was eventually revealed that the author was the still quite young Fernando de Rojas (c. 1465/76 - 1541), a son of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. In 1502 appeared a version with 21 "acts" and further additions. In fact, many of the subsequent new editions during the author's lifetime had additions of some sort or other. There is no wonder, then, that as of 2002, there has been no critical edition of this text in Spanish, since it is apparently difficult to decide in all cases which additions are Rojas' and which have been added by the publishers.


I came upon this title in Steven Moore's very informative survey The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600. It appears, however, that in Spain everyone reads this along with Lazarillo de Tormes and Don Quixote. Though the text presents itself in acts and many consider it to be a (failed) play for the stage, others, including Moore, view the work as the first novel in dialogue. Goytisolo refuses to pigeonhole the text, and I'll go along with that choice. Whether or not the 5 acts added to the original in 1502 were written by Rojas or were the fabrication of another, these acts are not of the same quality and badly unbalance and de-center the text, in my opinion, though I can understand how the original might seem a bit abrupt to some.


Of the many translations into English of this work, I read the one by Lesley Byrd Simpson, 




which presents only the text of the original edition, without the interpolated 5 acts, the "Argumentos" and the other additions. It reads beautifully, as I shall illustrate below.


I also looked through the more recent translation by Peter Bush mentioned earlier in order to compare the translations and to read the added 5 acts to decide for myself about their quality, for Bush has incorporated most, but not all of the additions to the original text.


However, I also read the second "original" text in a heavily annotated edition apparently intended for students in Spain, in which nearly all the additions made during Rojas' lifetime are included and extensive footnotes explain background and obsolete usage and words.(**) So, three different versions of the text, quite aside from the language...


Let's turn to the common core of the texts.


The initial set up of attempted seduction of the young and lovely Melibea by the intemperate Calisto and the subsequent firm rejection provides a standard frame within which to carry out the main business of the work - the reduction of most of the ideals of aristocratic and Christian Spain to absurdity in the corrosively ironic gaze of the lower classes.(***) Moreover, most of the characters representing the lower classes are rogues of the first water: self interest, money and a smooth line of bullshit rule the day. These two elements shape the comedic side of the tragicomedy.


As entertaining as that is, it fades to shadow when the main character arrives - the aged, worldly, vain, greedy procuress and witch, consummate liar and manipulator, and former prostitute, Celestina, who undertakes to bend Melibea to Calisto's will by magical means, after a significant "gift," of course. What a character! No wonder the original title fell into desuetude and was replaced by her name. I'd be willing to conjecture that this is an early example of a character occurring to an author and then taking over completely.


As for the tragedy, is it a spoiler to reveal that all the main characters die? "Innocent" or not. Dead. I think it's likely that Rojas' bitterness was not directed merely at the oligarchy and its ideology.


I cannot close this review without praising the unique style in which Celestina is written, which gave me even more pleasure than the characters did. First, the pure dialogue (at least in the first version) is tightly woven with proverb after proverb, most taken from the treasure chest of the Spanish people, but no few are lifted from classic authors like Plutarch. Sometimes the proverbs are very apt, but many times they are non sequiturs, recalling to me the modern novels whose characters speak solely in free association clichés. Every act, whether considered or completed, is commented on at length by the characters using vast arrays of proverb. And when Rojas winds up and throws his fast ball, what arrives at the plate are the kinds of effervescent, coruscating lists to be found in some of the better modern authors' works. Some are lists for the sake of seeing rare and incongruous words side by side, such as this tiny excerpt from a two page romp:


The oils she used for the face you would hardly believe: storax, jasmine, lemon, melon seed, benjamin, pistachio, pine nut, grape seed, jubejube nut, fennel, lupine, vetch, carilla, and chickweed.


But others are lists in poetic flight, such as this excerpt from the last act of the original version:


When I was young I thought the world was ruled by order. I know better now! It is a labyrinth of errors, a frightful desert, a den of wild beasts, a game in which men run in circles, a lake of mud, a thorny thicket, a dense forest, a stony field, a meadow full of serpents, a river of tears, a sea of miseries, effort without profit, a flowering but barren orchard, a running spring of cares, a sweet poison, a vain hope, a false joy, and a true pain.


(Both in Simpson's words. I think Bush's version of this passage is relatively weak.)


I very much enjoyed this work, one which engendered a host of followers (la literatura celestinesca) and with which Cervantes was well acquainted when he wrote his masterpiece nearly a century later. In fact, Cervantes called Rojas' work "divine" in the introduction to the first part of his tale of the Knight of La Mancha. Come to think of it, Sancho Panza, a servant commenting freely on the absurdities of his employer Don Quixote, is definitely a celestinesque touch... 


(*) A somewhat modified version of Goytisolo's essay serves as the Introduction to the recent Penguin edition 




 of Peter Bush's new translation of Celestina.


(**) La Celestina, Editorial Castalia, Madrid, 2002.


(***) According to Goytisolo, Rojas' father was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, and he and the other conversos were constantly disadvantaged and persecuted by the true believers. Goytisolo sees La Celestina as an expression of Rojas' bitterness towards the oligarchy and its ideology. Quite possibly.