LAZARILLO DE TORMES (EXCERPTS) anonymous

"The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, His Fortunes and his Adversities" was published, anonymously, in Spain in 1554, half a century before the publication of Cervantesí Don Quixote. Modern scholars would consider it to be a "novella." Lazarillo was immensely popular in its day, and for a time, was banned by the Inquisition for its willingness to exhibit the flaws and corruption of some religious figures. It is a story of a poor orphan boy, the quintessential "picaro", or "street-wise rogue" whose charm somehow overpowers his sins, and whose unjust predicament nearly always evokes sympathy. The story, a fictional autobiography, is told in the first-person, with great cleverness. Although the Spanish version is in the public domain, modern translations into English are not; this translation, therefore, is my own, based, unfortunately, on a heavily abridged edition. However, enough of Lazarilloís soul and style comes through to make the undertaking worthwhile. In deference to my own tastes, I have chosen to cut out large portions of the story so as to focus on what I consider to be its most entertaining episodes. The parts which I have cut out have been summarized in passages indicated by italics. For a more substantial rendition into English, as well as for access to the original Spanish, see http://www.4olin.com [JRS]

__________________________________

Lazarillo de Tormes, according to his account, was born the son of Tome Gonzalez and Antonia Perez. His father died in war when he was still young, and times of hardship followed for him and his widowed mother. Eventually, she began a relationship with a dark-skinned man, which at first upset Lazarillo who wished no substitute for his father, but in time, he warmed up to the man as his motherís new friend brought them bread and meat to overcome their hunger, and firewood to heat their home. Eventually, his mother had a child by this man. One day, Lazarillo observed how the child, accustomed to his mother and to Lazarillo who were both white, fled from the dark-skinned man who was his father, pointing his finger at him and crying out: "Mother, itís the Bogeyman!" The man took it in good humor, and said, with a laugh: "You little bastard!" Lazarillo, although he was still a child himself, observed: "How many people there must be in this world who run away from others just because they donít look the same as they do!" Unfortunately, this good-hearted man had only been able to provide for them by stealing from the wealthy persons he worked for, and when it was found out, a huge scandal and persecution resulted. Young Lazarillo was psychologically scarred as he was manipulated by authorities into making the confessions which led to the punishment of his stepfather and mother. As a result, Lazarilloís mother, having been shamed and beaten, ended up moving from their home and taking up work in an inn, where she struggled to raise Lazarillo and his brother. When, under these adverse conditions, she happened to encounter a blind man who was in need of someone to guide him and help him about, she convinced him to take Lazarillo into his service, so that her poor orphaned son might learn to fend for himself and earn a place in the world. The blind man promised that he would take care of Lazarillo as if he were his own son, and together, the two of them left, leaving behind Lazarilloís heartbroken mother who wept: "I know I shall never see you again!"

The blind man who took Lazarillo out with him into the cruel and harsh world which was dominated by the powerful, and the wily, made a good living by saying prayers and dispensing folk wisdom regarding cures and remedies to the people who came to him seeking his advice, who paid him generously for his assistance, although his main talent may have been his skill in acting the part of the expert. Very quickly, Lazarillo found out that the blind man was far from the father-figure he had promised Lazarilloís mother that he would be. Lazarillo writes of his first encounter with the malice of "el ciego":

We left Salamanca and arriving at the entrance to the bridge where there is an animal built of stone in the form of a bull, the blind man directed me to approach it closely, and once I was there he told me: "Lazaro, put your ear right up there against the bull and you will hear a big noise coming from inside."

I did as he told me, believing it would be as he said; when the old man sensed that I had my head pushed up against the stone he gave me such a huge blow with his hand, driving me against the bull, that the pain lasted for more than three days, and he said: "Learn that the servant of a blind man has to know more than the devil, himself!" And he laughed heartily at that.

It seems to me that it was at that moment that I awoke from the innocence in which I, as a child asleep to the ways of the world, had lived. And I told myself: "Heís right, for Iím alone. I have to be sharp and on my toes if Iím ever going to amount to anything."

After describing the blind manís money-making routine, Lazaro states:

But I would also like you, dear reader, to know that, in spite of all the blind man had, I never saw a man so stingy, to the point that he nearly starved me to death and didnít even give me the basic necessities. I tell you the truth: if I didnít know how to look after myself, I would have died of hunger many times over; but in spite of all his knowledge, I got the better of him more often than not. To accomplish this, I pulled off a lot of tricks, some of which Iíll tell you about.

The blind man carried his bread and everything else his benefactors gave him in a bag of cloth which he closed across the mouth with a ring and lock which had a key. He put the contents in and took them out with such care that it wasnít possible to sneak even a crumb without him noticing. The little that he gave me of his own volition was gone after two bites. After he closed the bag with the ring he would sit there with complete peace of mind thinking that I was occupied doing other things, but in truth I was busy cutting a hole in the bag and then sewing it back shut, after I had withdrawn some bread and sausage.

Lazarillo related how he also jipped the blind man by getting a hold of the money the blind man was given by his benefactors, and substituting coins of lesser value for ones of greater value, which he kept for himself so that he could buy what he needed to live. The blind man could tell, by feeling the coins, that something was going on, but he was duped into thinking that the people were no longer paying him as well as before, and blamed Lazarillo for being "bad luck" rather than a clever trickster. Next, Lazarillo related a story about a jug of wine:

The blind man had the habit of keeping a jug of wine beside him while we ate. I would pick up the jug and drink from it without making a sound and then put it back in its place. But this success didnít last for long, because when he started to take a drink for himself he noticed that there wasnít as much wine as heíd thought, and so to guard the supply, he took to hanging on to the jug at all times, gripping it by the handle. But I, with a straw which I had especially designed for that purpose, countered by slipping it into the mouth of the jug, leaving the old man without a drop. But I think he sensed what was going on, and from then on he kept his hand over the mouth of the jug and guarded it tightly between his legs, and in this way he drank with total security.

As I had by now developed a taste for wine, I was dying for it; and realizing that my straw had now outlived its usefulness, I decided to make a small hole in the bottom of the jug and to plug it shut with a wad of wax. When it came time to eat, I placed myself between the legs of the blind man as though I needed to warm my body due to the poor results of the little fire we had burning. However that fire was enough to melt the wax until a stream of wine was leaking out of the jug and I placed my head in such a way as not to lose a single drop. When the poor blind man went to take a drink there was nothing there. At this, he cried out with despair, and had no idea what to do.

"Donít blame me, uncle, or believe for a single moment that I drank your wine," I told him; "after all, the jug never left your hands!"

He turned the jug around in his hands so many times, inspecting it, that at last he found, with his finger, the little hole I had made, and understood the deception I had carried out against him, but although he had figured out what had happened, he didnít let on. The next day, as I attempted to repeat the same trick, without realizing that the blind man was now prepared, and as I was receiving the sweet drops of wine, my face turned upwards towards the heavens, my eyes closed to better relish the pleasure, the desperate blind man, lifting up the jug with all the power he had, smashed it into my face with tremendous force, in such a way that I, Lazaro, in no way expecting anything like this to happen, felt as though the sky along with everything it contained had just landed on top of me.

The blow was so fierce that it made me lose consciousness and the shattering jug cut me in many places and also knocked out my teeth which I remain without to this day.

From that hour on I wished evil upon the blind man, and even though he loved me and cared for me well, I saw all too clearly how delighted he had been by my cruel punishment. He washed my wounds with wine and, laughing, said: "What do you think, Lazaro? That which made you sick makes you well and gives you health."

After I had recovered from the blows, although I wanted to forgive him for the attack with the jug, I couldnít, due to the mistreatment that evil blind man subjected me to from then on; he punished me without cause or reason and whenever anyone asked him why he treated me so badly, he would tell them the story of the jug, saying: "You think this kid is good? Well listen."

And those who heard him said: "Imagine that! And whoíd think that such a small boy could be so bad? Punish him, by all means, punish him!" And he, backed up by the opinion of those who he had just convinced, did not change his ways.

To get back at him, and to harm and damage him all I could, I took to guiding him down the worst roads possible; if there were sharp stones, Iíd take him that way. Likewise, if there was mud, the deeper the better. Even if I got muddy, too, I was satisfied to take him down with me. To punish me for these transgressions, the blind man often hit the back of my head with his cane, and also abused me with his hands. My head was covered with signs of their visitation, and although I swore to him that I was not deliberately misleading him, but had chosen the best route that I could find for us, he didnít believe me; such was the enormous understanding of that malicious blind man.

Lazarillo continued with his account, by stating:

In order that you, my dear reader, may get an idea of just how far this manís cleverness extended, Iíll relate to you one of many incidents that befell me.

They left the area where they had been staying, because, as the old man said, "Even the tight-fisted give more than the empty-handed", and taking off for parts rumored to be more profitable, they arrived at a place called Almorox, when the season of the grapes was at hand. Here, they were presented with a large bunch of grapes as a gift.

As the bunch was beginning to come apart in our hands, he decided that it should be eaten, hoping to pacify me since that day heíd beaten me a lot. We sat ourselves down and he said to me: "Lazaro, right now Iíd like us to eat this bunch of grapes together, and Iíd like you to have the same portion as me. Weíll manage it like this: youíll take one grape, and Iíll take another, but only one at a time, until, by turns, weíve finished the whole thing."

This having been said, we began to eat, but by the second round the evil blind man had changed his mind and begun to cheat, taking his grapes two-at-a-time, believing I was already doing the same. When I saw what he was up to, I surpassed him, and began to take three at a time.

After we had finally polished off the last of the grapes, he told me: "Lazaro, youíve deceived me. Youíve eaten three grapes at a time."

"Itís not true," I told him. "But, anyhow, what makes you think that, your grace?"

"You know how I could tell?" he asked me. "Because, when I was eating two at a time, you didnít say a thing."

I had to laugh at that; even though I was only a boy, I realized how well my master knew the ways of the world!

Lazarillo went on to relate another battle of wits which took place between him and the blind man at an inn, an altercation provoked by the blind manís avarice, which ultimately led to an awful thrashing, filling the young boy with a desire for revenge. At last, he determined to leave his cruel master, but not until he had gotten even with him.

We had been begging for alms for many hours. It was a day wracked by heavy rains, and as the night was arriving, the blind man said to me: "Lazaro, this rain isnít going to stop any time soon, and as the night goes on, itís only going to come down harder. We need to make haste, and find an inn to spend the night in!"

To get to the inn we had to cross a stream of water in our path which had been greatly swelled by the downpour.

I told the blind man: "Uncle, the streamís become very wide, but even so, I see a place where, if you wish, we can get over it quickly without getting wet, because itís narrow there, and if we jump, weíll pass right over it without getting wet."

The idea seemed good to him, and he said: "Youíve got a good head on your shoulders, thatís why I love you. Lead me to the place where the stream narrows, since itís wintertime and the water feels unpleasant, and worse yet if it soaks your feet."

I led him directly in front of a stone column which stood in the plaza, and said, "Uncle, this is the narrowest point in the stream."

"Line me up straight," he told me, "then you go first."

I put him directly in front of the column, and taking a leap, placed myself behind the column. From there I told him: "Jump, your grace; give it all youíve got!"

Iíd hardly got the word out of my mouth when the poor blind man leapt with such enormous force that he smashed his head directly into the post, practically killing himself...

I left him with a throng of people who came out to help him, and beat it for Torrijos. I never found out what happened to him after that, and I didnít trouble myself trying to find out.

As a result of his mischief, Lazaro was now on his own and in need of another master, for he was too young to make it alone.

As it seemed to me that it was no longer safe to remain at the location where I had got the best of the blind man, next day I went to a place called Marqueda, where I came upon a priest who I hit on for a little money. He asked me if I knew how to assist with the Mass. I told him I did, since it was the truth, because, even though the blind man had beaten me, he had also taught me many valuable things, one of which was how to help with the Mass. Finally, the priest welcomed me into his home as his servant.

I left the blind man, my first master, because he was very greedy, and ended up with this one who was even worse; compared to him, the blind man had been as lavish as Alexander the Great.

My new master had an old trunk, the key to which he carried wherever he went, and when he arrived home heíd throw the bread which he had received in the church into that trunk and lock it shut again. In his house there was nothing to eat like in other homes, where pieces of bread were left out in a basket, or scraps of cured meat were left hanging up in plain sight. The only thing he kept were some onions in a room in the attic, and the key to this room he, likewise, never parted with. From this meager supply, all he would spare me was one onion every four days, and whenever I asked him for the key to get it, if someone else was present and requiring his attention, he would lend me the key, saying: "Take it, and return it to me without delay."

He said it as though there was a great cornucopia up there, even though there was nothing more than those damned onions whose number he knew exactly.

With this one, I most definitely began to die of hunger. After being with him for three weeks, I could hardly stand on my feet from the hunger I was going through. I saw that, if God or my cleverness did not come to my assistance quickly, I was going to die.

He never sent me out to buy wine, and to hide his avarice he told me:

"Look, boy, we priests have to be very moderate in our eating and drinking, for this reason I donít eat voraciously like others."

But in this he was lying, because whenever we went to the house of somebody who had passed away, he would devour the food which the mourners offered us as though he were a wolf.

And I - may God forgive me - was never a worse enemy of mankind than in those days in which I was with this priest. Every day, I prayed to God that He would strike someone down, and this was because whenever someone died we went to the house of the deceased to pray and were there well fed.

And in all the time I was with him, which would end up being six months, only twenty people passed away and these I truly believe expired because of my prayers to God. On those days in which we buried someone, I lived; on those days when no one passed away, my hunger came back to me so strongly that, at times, I wished I was dead.

I thought many times about leaving this master but I could barely move from hunger, and I was also very fearful reflecting on the fact that with the blind man I had experienced hunger, and with this new master I was dying from it: if I ran to a third master and he turned out to be worse yet, what would become of me?

Well, one day that my master was out taking care of business in the town, as I was alone with these miserable thoughts, and without any idea as to what to do or what path to take in life, a fix-it man, who I believe was actually an angel sent to me by the hand of God, came knocking on the door.

He asked me if there was anything that needed to be repaired.

I told him: "Uncle, I lost the key to this trunk and Iím afraid that my master will punish me. Please look and see if any of the keys you are carrying might be able to open it and if you find anything, Iíll pay you the best I can."

Of the many keys which he carried around with him, he began to try one after the other, until he finally came across one which opened the trunk. I told him: "I donít have money to pay for the key, but as payment, you can take what you want from the trunk."

He took one of the loaves of bread which it contained and, giving me the key, left very satisfied, but not so satisfied as me.

For the time being, so the lack wouldnít be noticed, I didnít touch a thing. My master returned home, but didnít open up the trunk and for this reason didnít notice that a piece of bread Ė the one which the fix-it man had carried off - was missing.

Next day, when the priest left home, I opened the trunk and seized a piece of bread between my hands and ravenous teeth. But I didnít eat it all at once, and I also didnít forget to shut the trunk behind me. After closing the trunk, I began to joyfully sweep the floors of the house and throughout the entire day I was supremely satisfied, because it seemed to me that the sadness of my life was over.

But this wonderful state of affairs did not last long, for on the third day I noticed the priest counting and recounting the loaves of bread in the trunk. After having counted the days and the number of loaves, he sat there a while, thinking, without saying a single word. At last he said: "If I hadnít had this trunk securely locked, Iíd say somebody had swiped some bread from here. From now on, Iím going to keep a careful count; right now we have nine loaves of bread and one piece."

When my master left once more, I opened the trunk and began to count the loaves of bread, hoping he might have made a mistake, but no such luck. The most I could do now was to cut off a little bit from the piece of bread Ė the tiniest, most undetectable sliver that I could. With this little bit, I struggled through the day.

But my hunger just grew worse by the minute, and besides this, my stomach was accustomed to eating more from those two or three days of abundance I had experienced, and I was dying a terrible death, inasmuch as all I could do was to stare at those tempting, untouchable loaves of bread, "the face of God" as children say. I spent the day opening and closing the lid of the trunk.

Once more God came to my rescue in the form of a thought which he put into my mind: "This trunk is old and large, and itís broken in places and riddled with small holes. Itís not hard to imagine that mice might possibly be able to work their way into the trunk through one of these holes and eat the bread. I canít take a whole loaf because then my master would notice. ButÖ"

In this way I put into effect a new plan of breaking off tiny pieces from the bread, and eating the crumbs which I had made, which helped to relieve my pangs of hunger.

When the priest returned home to eat and opened the trunk and saw what had happened, he believed, without any doubt, that it had been the work of mice. He examined the trunk and discovered the holes through which he believed the mice had entered.

He called me over, saying: "Lazaro! Look, look what happened tonight to our bread!"

And I asked him what could possibly have happened.

"What could it be?" he echoed. "Mice, who take no prisoners!"

We began to eat, and God blessed me with tremendous good fortune, for the priest gave me far more bread than usual, because, with a knife, he cut off every part of the bread that he thought the mice had nibbled on and told me: "Lazaro, here, this is for you, donít worry, mice are very clean creatures." And in that way the meal passed.

After eating, he got up, removed some nails from the walls, searched for pieces of wood and closed up all the holes in the trunk.

"Oh my Lord, God!" I exclaimed then. "How great is the misery which is heaped upon us by the mere fact of being born, and how short a time last the pleasures of this life of toil!"

When the priest left the house once more, I went to take a look at his work and saw that he had not failed to shut every single hole in the trunk.

As Necessity is such a brilliant teacher, I spent night and day considering how I might get another bite to eat. Thinking about it one night, I sensed that my master had fallen asleep. I got up very slowly, took hold of a knife which I had hidden in a place from which I could retrieve it, and snuck up to the trunk. As the wood was very old, I was able to make a hole in it. Having done this to create the illusion of another entry-point, I used my key to open the trunk very slowly, and from the bread that was in there I took a piece. Afterwards, I closed the lid of the trunk again, and I went back to the pile of straws that was my bed, in which I rested, and finally managed to get a little sleep.

The next day, on seeing the damage done to the trunk and to the bread, my master began to shout, cursing the mice, and bellowing in a gigantic voice: "Whatís there to say to this? I never before sensed the presence of mice in the house, until now."

And, without a doubt, what my master said is sure to have been true, because mice arenít in the habit of living where thereís nothing to eat.

He responded by covering the holes in the trunk with new nails and new pieces of wood. Everything he covered over by day, I uncovered by night with my knife. Thatís how it was, and each of us pursued our objective with such velocity that without a doubt thatís why itís said: "When one door is closed, another is opened."

When my poor master saw that his remedy was not giving results, he said: "This trunk is so old that thereís not a mouse alive who couldnít find a way to get inside it. And the worst of it is that, even though itís old, if it fails me Iíll have to spend 3 or 4 reales to buy a new one. The best solution I can come up with, since everything Iíve tried up till now has been a flop, is to set up a mouse trap."

He searched for someone who would loan him a mouse trap, and with pieces of cheese which he requested from the neighbors, he maintained the loaded trap inside the trunk.

I took the pieces of cheese from the trap, which I ate along with the pieces of bread.

When my poor master discovered the cheese missing, and the bread nibbled on, and no mouse in the trap, he plunged into a state of despairÖ

Lazaro went on to describe how his master became convinced that his nemesis must be a snake, rather than a mouse, since he could not succeed in capturing even one mouse in his trap; and he armed himself accordingly. In the end, Lazaroís deception was discovered, and once more the orphan boy received cruel injuries as a result, being battered as though he were a serpent before being dismissed from service.

This episode ended, Lazaro then proceeded to tell the story of how he subsequently served an assortment of masters, including one religious charlatan who connived to produce false miracles. But that account focused mainly on the cleverness and corruption of his master. The episodes already presented are the best for showing off Lazaroís own wiles.

In the end, although it was not made entirely clear how it came about, Lazaro, in the last chapter of his book, reported that he had finally "made it", persevering through his brutal initiation into the world of masters and their servants seeking upward mobility, to attain a "royal post." Although the specifics are lacking, it can be assumed that by means of his resourcefulness, his determination, his open eyes and his tremendous flair for learning from those around him, and perhaps, also, through the sympathy of God who took pity on his hardships, Lazaro succeeded in climbing the social ladder from the gutter to a position of prosperity and respect.

More than the coherence and development of the narrative to its conclusion, however, it is the wit, sometimes with an underlying pathos, and the fighting spirit of Lazaro, which make this chronicle stand out.

Public Domain Fiction Contents

Short Fiction Contents

Creative Safehouse Contents

Site Contents