When the story of the story is not the story


(Reprinted from Great Moments in Deconstructionism, University of Toronto Press, 2018.)


In 1975, some two weeks after the death of Franco, the Compultense University of Madrid announced the discovery of a lost Renaissance text. The discovery had been made by María Chabier, a graduate student recently returned from a semester in Paris. There she had studied under Jacques Derrida, and it was there, too, that she had found the text among a pile of remaindered books. Edited by the eminent philologist Ramón Menéndez Pidal, it bore the title El piquero andaluz and told, in the form of a dying confession written down by a priest, the story of Ruy Daza, a grifter and adventurer who served in the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella. What made the discovery so exciting was that the text dated from the second or third decade of the sixteenth century, making it the earliest known example of the picaresque novel.


It was an opportune discovery, coming as it did at a time when Spaniards were eager to reclaim their heritage from both the Church and the dead hand of Franco. Ruy Daza, as El País put it, was the perfect anti-authoritarian antihero, a man of the people and for the people,” while the celebrated cartoonist Felip Puig did much to popularize Daza by making him the hero of a new cartoon series, “Piquero/Pícaro.” For her part, Chabier was much praised for bringing a Renaissance masterpiece back to life, and her PhD thesis now completed, she had her pick of appointments at Spain’s leading universities, settling at last on her alma mater, which promised her a free hand in establishing a center for deconstructionist studies at the university. She also received an undisclosed sum from Ediciones Barredor for the publication of the text, which was then translated into English under the title The Andalusian Pikeman.


Then, in 1980, Anneke Loos, a lecturer in Spanish history and literature at the University of Leyden, published an article challenging the text’s authenticity. Subsequently reprinted in the Boletín de la Real Academia Española, it was then picked up by the Spanish press, which, having been quick to champion El piquero, was now just as quick to repudiate it. “Is El piquero andaluz Spain’s answer to the Hitler Diaries?” asked El País in what was the most sensational headline to come out of the attack. Suspicion naturally fell on Chabier, without, however, her being explicitly named as the culprit.


At no time had Loos herself accused Chabier of having forged the text, but her close analysis of the text’s origins and transmission could not rule out that someone else had.


Who, then, wrote El piquero andaluz? Was it Ruy Daza, whose dying confession it records, Father Jerónimo Pulgar, the priest who wrote it down and doubtless improved upon it, or someone else altogether? With any other text, the question would have come down to the first two men: either Father Pulgar faithfully transcribed Daza’s words, or he used them as the starting point for his own literary creation. But in the case of El piquero, there are two other strong candidates: Anatole Beauséjour, a French officer who fought in the Peninsular War, and an unnamed Basque who served under him. Or was it someone else altogether?


The picture is further muddied by the fact that there is no independent record of Daza’s existence aside from a passing mention of what may or may not have been his grave, as noted below. That said, the fact that he left no other trace in the historical record is hardly remarkable: recordkeeping was notoriously spotty in the armies of Renaissance Europe, while few of the men serving in them could actually write.


Of Father Pulgar, only two facts are certain: that he was, unlike most Spanish priests of the time, university-educated, having completed his studies in Salamanca in or around 1490, and that despite this, he spent the entirety of his career as a humble parish priest, in the Castilian village of Fuentes Secas. He would appear to have had a brush with the Holy Office in 1520, assuming that he is the Father Pulgar who was reprimanded that year for “telling indecent stories, which he ought not to have done, in a tavern, where he ought not to have been.”


The search for Father Pulgar is further complicated by the fact that the village where he served no longer exists. This was the fate of countless other villages in the more barren areas of Old Castile, and the name Fuentes Secas hints at a particularly unfortunate location. And yet maps show that it was in fact located next to a river, the Río Almar, while accounts from Father Pulgar’s time depict a village that was, by the modest standards of Old Castile, reasonably prosperous, and, what is even more unusual, clean to the point of fastidiousness. This certainly was the impression it made on Hieronymus Münzer (d. 1508), the German humanist whose travels took him to Spain in 1495:


Never, not even in the spotless towns of Flanders, have I seen as much sweeping as I saw in Fuentes Secas. Beside each of its neat doorways is to be found a broom, itself a model of cleanliness, and a traveller has but to pass through the village for its matrons to rush out to sweep away the dust he leaves in his wake. The impression, if he looks back, is that they were trying to sweep away history itself, for what is history if not the dust left by the past? On the village’s coat of arms is to be found the titular saint of the local church, Santa Eufemia, wielding a broom as a reaper might a scythe. The least clean person in the parish is the priest, who lives openly with his housekeeper.


Andrea Navagero (1483-1529), the Venetian ambassador to the court of the Emperor Charles, made a brief stop in the village some thirty years later, in 1526. Like Münzer, he was struck by its mania for cleanliness. But his account also reveals how Daza’s unsavory reputation had already managed to rub off on the village itself, making it, quite despite itself, a magnet for undesirables:


Despite this appearance, of being a village of housewives, an unspeakably strong stench of urine clings to the place, as foul as that produced by an encampment of soldiers. The smell emanates from a freshly dug grave in the churchyard, though the person buried in it, a one-time soldier with the colorful name of Il Picchiero, died several years ago. The people of the place openly murmur against their priest for allowing the bones of such a man to mingle with those of their ancestors, and have on several occasions dug them up and tossed them outside the churchyard, all in an attempt to discourage pranksters from pissing there. The man was by all accounts a great rascal in life, and this is the tribute his fellow rascals, female as well as male, have seen fit to pay him in death. Several of the more respectable households have already moved out of the village on account of the stench. The alcalde, which is their word for mayor, told me that should this exodus continue, the village must in a matter of years be home to none but gypsies and other such tramps; it is, he claims, all owing to this Picchiero of theirs, who, having seen the world in his own wicked image, would even in death go on fashioning it in the same image.


For Navagero, writing to a fellow Venetian (Giambattista Ramusio) this gloomy prediction was yet another example of the “essential pessimism of the Spanish character,” and yet it clearly had some basis, for by the reign of Felipe II the village was but a shadow of its former self. In the Relaciones topográficas submitted to the Crown, it is described as having “more houses than people,” the latter numbering no more than fifty “and none of them rich.” In the same report we read that the surrounding countryside had fallen out of cultivation, “despite which it is poor even for hunting, there being but crows and hares, and of the second, few.” By 1723, the village had ceased to be inhabited. This, at least, is the most obvious inference from the grant made that year to the Mesta, allowing its shepherds to shelter their flocks within its walls.


It seems almost incredible, then, that a complete manuscript should have been found there some three centuries later, in 1809. But it was only then that Father Pulgar’s account, unpublished during his life, and forgotten after it, saw the light of day, and under circumstances that were, to say the least, unusual in the extreme. In February of that year, a detachment of French troops set up camp in the ruins of the village, with orders to use it as a base for operations against guerrillas operating in the Sierra de Guadarrama. The detachment’s lieutenant, a Gascon by the name of Anatole Beauséjour, had a singularly poor record—he had twice been demoted to the ranks, the first time for cutting a ring off the finger of a fallen officer, the second for pocketing his men’s wages—and it was only owing to the interventions of his father, a childhood friend of Marshall Lefebvre, that he was able to keep his commission.


With such an officer, it was to be expected that the expedition would end badly, and it did. In Fuentes Secas, the French found themselves in a village with no people, no food, and, crucially, no potable water; worse, Beauséjour had made no provision for a latrine, other than to issue the airy order that his men “pay their respects to the enemy by relieving themselves in the graveyard.” As a result, within days his men were succumbing to dysentery, and Beauséjour found himself reduced to a handful of effectives.


This time, even his father’s influence could not save him. Cashiered from the army and with no money of his own, Beauséjour returned to Paris, where he was implicated in several dubious adventures, including the failed abduction of an eighty-three-year-old widow. He also put it out that he was in possession of an original Renaissance manuscript that he was willing to sell for the right price. One of the people he approached was the Polish count Jan Potocki, whose Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse had recently been published in France. In his one surviving letter to the count, Beauséjour equates his manuscript, which he claims to have found in Fuentes Secas, with the fictional one found by Potocki’s French officer in Zaragoza:


I am writing to you, esteemed sir, because of the keen interest you have shown in manuscripts found by French officers in Spain. As it so happens, when I was an officer there, I, too, happened upon an antique manuscript, though admittedly not in as picturesque a location as Zaragoza. The place where I found mine was called Fuentes Secas, a ridiculous name, as I’m sure you will agree, and the circumstances were no less ridiculous. We had not been in this godforsaken place for two days when my men were stricken with the bloody flux, and those who were not prostrated entirely went about in constant fear of soiling themselves. Why the great armies of Europe should all want to dress their soldiers in white trousers is something I, for one, cannot fathom, but because of it my men were in a perfect frenzy for paper, any paper, and turned the old church upside down looking for it. The simplest of the lot, a peasant wholly untouched by Republican principles, actually got down on his knees and prayed for just one sheet of paper, and lo and behold (as the religious are given to saying) his prayer was answered, for upon breaking down the door to the sacristy we found a whole trove of paper, parish registers I have to assume, which the men immediately made off with. One, a wily Basque whose name I never could master, appropriated a packet containing a hundred or so folios, and being able to read Spanish, took the trouble to read the first of these before using it to wipe his ass, and, would you believe, was so entranced that he remained frozen to the spot, his pants down, until he had read the entire thing. His fellows suspected him of lunacy, as did I, but when, by way of explanation of his conduct, he began reading the manuscript to me, translating as he went, and I could not help myself: I fell under the same spell he had, the tale was so perfectly astonishing. And now, most happily, I am in possession of that manuscript; in fact, it is right before me, in my present accommodations in La Grande Force, and my question to you is how much, as one gentleman to another, you might be willing to pay for it—


Beauséjour went on to claim that the only reason why he had so far been unable to find a buyer was because he had, as an unapologetic Bonapartist, been blacklisted by the newly restored monarchy. “You are quite right about that,” Potocki wrote back:


You have indeed been blacklisted, but not for your politics. It is for your morals, or rather, your utter lack of them. In fact, there is an uncanny resemblance between this piquero of yours and yourself. You will forgive my bluntness, but now that I have started on that path, allow me to add two things more: that you presume in attempting to enter into a correspondence with me, and presume even more in thinking that I—or anyone else, for that matter—could possibly believe your story, that you just happened to find a book-length manuscript in a deserted church. And lest you accuse me of also making things up, permit me to observe that that is my privilege as a novelist, but that when a scoundrel follows suit, he is merely lying.


We do not know whose hands the manuscript next fell into, only that it suddenly reappeared in 1937, in circumstances as improbable as those marking its first appearance. In August of that year, a Spanish refugee in Foix presented Hippolyte Lachaise, the director of the local archives, with a Renaissance manuscript, saying only that an antiquarian in Ávila had entrusted her with smuggling it out of the country. Fearful that the Fascists were even then pursuing her, she refused to give her name; for the same reason, she also refused to name the antiquarian. As for the manuscript, she knew only what he had told her: that it was supposed to have come from one of the villages in the area, but that he himself had never heard of it. Lachaise’s suspicions were further aroused when she asked for a “finder’s fee,” which he nonetheless paid out of his own funds—“more out of compassion than conviction,” as he wrote to his friend Lucien Febvre.


It was on Febvre’s recommendation that Lachaise asked Ramón Menéndez Pidal to evaluate the manuscript. The request came at a particularly fraught time in Menéndez Pidal’s life—with the victory of the Nationalists all but assured, it was by no means certain that he and his wife would even be allowed back in Spain—but he nonetheless agreed, asking that the manuscript be forwarded to him in Paris. His reply was both immediate and emphatic: the hand (the bastardilla), the orthography, and the deteriorated condition of the vellum on which it was written all dated the manuscript to the early sixteenth century. What especially excited him about the text was that Ruy Daza claimed to have served under Don Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, known for his many victories as The Great Captain, making it an invaluable resource for historians of both early modern Spain and the Italian Wars of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.


Though sorely in need of funds, Menéndez Pidal refused payment for his service, asking instead that he be allowed to transcribe and publish the manuscript so that it might be made accessible to his fellow scholars. Lachaise readily agreed, and as the manuscript rightfully belonged in Spain, entrusted him with depositing it at some later date in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid.


Menéndez Pidal completed the transcription while still in France, where he also arranged to have a limited edition privately printed in Andorra. He then returned to Spain, hoping to have it published there as well. “I myself may be persona non grata with the new regime,” he explained in a letter to Febvre, “but any history concerning The Great Captain cannot fail to interest the little generalissimo [Franco], who, incredible to say, would have people believe that he is no less great.” This was an accurate reading of Franco—in 1942, Fray Luis María de Lojendio, the dictatorship’s most ardent propagandist, was to produce his own fawning biography of The Great Captain—but by the same logic any account that cast his exploits in a less than heroic light was bound to be censored, if not banned outright. Menéndez Pidal was presented with the first option: a heavily bowdlerized edition that, unsurprisingly, he refused to publish.


Whatever hopes Menéndez Pidal may still have had for the book were dashed by the outbreak of war in 1939. Writing to Sánchez-Albornoz in December of that year, he announced his intention to “return the text to the oblivion from which I had so foolishly wanted to rescue it.” He was as good as his word, for he never again mentioned the edition; nor, more tellingly still, is it to be found in any bibliography of his publications. At this point, too, all trace of the original manuscript is lost, leaving only such copies of the Andorra edition as survived the war.


* * *


Loos herself refused to commit herself to any one author. But the more she delved into the text’s history, the less convinced she became that Father Pulgar could have written it, though as she was the first to say, she could “neither rule him in or out.” Beauséjour she could rule out for the simple fact that he knew no Spanish. Instead, her interest fell on the Basque who just happened to find the manuscript buried among the sacristy’s papers. He was, after all, the only person in Beauséjour’s troop who was able to translate the text: was it too much of a leap to think that he might have written it as well? The manuscript, by this reasoning, could only be a hoax, if not an out-and-out fraud.


As for Chabier, the implication, that she had either been taken in or had knowingly been a party to the hoax did not unduly trouble her. If anything, it only further advanced her career, providing her with a teachable moment in deconstructionism. When asked, as she has been on several occasions, who the author might be, she always answers with a question of her own: “Does it really matter whether Father Pulgar was the author? Or Daza or Beauséjour or some Basque or someone else altogether? The text is still the text no matter who wrote it, and a rogue’s tale must always be a rogue’s tale.”