Monday, July 23, 2012

Prosaic uniformity and savorless realism - Alarcón's jolly Three-Cornered Hat

Spanish Literature Month continues at a blistering pace – here is one week, just one short week, of the effort.  So many books, and nothing from the 19th century, as is statistically all too likely.  Much of the century falls in the curious two hundred year canonical gap in Spanish literature.

Spain’s medieval and early modern literature rivals that of any European tradition, but something happened  in the mid-17th century – the standard explanation is “the Counter-Reformation” – that did not do in the production of literature as such, but, remembering that judgments like this are always retrospective, killed off the imaginative literature that people today want to read, canonical literature.  Please check my work in any history of Spanish literature – how quickly does the author want to get out of the dreary 18th century?

The drought lasted well into the 19th century, although once the rain started the result was a flood.  That is not such a good sentence but I did not want to mix my metaphors.  My point is that by the end of the century Spanish literature was alive and rich, in verse and prose, in Europe and America.

The Three-Cornered Hat (1874) by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón is at the head of the new tradition, a charming and funny novella about an ugly miller and his lovely wife  and the comic misunderstandings that result when a local official sets his sights on the wife.  Much of the plot depends on the ancient device where changing your clothes changes your identity so that whoever is wearing the big three-cornered hat is assumed to be the big man in charge, although Alarcón does cheat a bit – he critiques the old device while using it.  The result is a story that feels like a direct descendant of Cervantes and Lazarillo de Tormes, as if Alarcón had simply stepped across the intervening centuries.

Perhaps this is why Alarcón is so careful to place his story in history:  “The year is not precisely known; it is certain only that it was after 4 and before 8” (Ch. I) which puts it before the Napoleonic Wars devastate Spain, and before anyone thought they might, “as if, in the midst of all these novelties and upheavals, the Pyrenees had grown into another Great Wall of China.”  The story could well seem timeless, or at least nostalgically remote, without this context but Alarcón deliberately sets it on the eve of convulsive change.

The Three-Cornered Hat is essentially a story about the abuse of authority.  “[T]he good old times symbolized by the Three-Cornered Hat” (Ch. 36) were corrupt and ruinous for ordinary people, but happy times for the powerful:

Happy times, in which our land enjoyed quiet and peaceful possession of all the cobwebs, dust, moths, all the observances, beliefs, traditions, all the uses and abuses, sanctified by the ages!...  Happy times, I say, especially for the poets, who might find round every corner an interlude, a farce, a comedy, a drama, a mystery, or an epic, instead of this prosaic uniformity and savorless realism which came to us on the heels of the French Revolution!  Happy times indeed!  (Ch. II)

Little of The Three-Cornered Hat is written so sarcastically.  None of it is without savor.

I read The Three-Cornered Hat in Great Spanish Stories (1956, Modern Library), tr. Martin Armstrong.


  1. Good to see you getting in the Spanish Literature Month mood Tom :) Not one I've heard of, but that seems to be a running theme for me this month...

  2. This story used to be standard in Spanish language programs - an achievable real novel for people learning Spanish. It has likely been replaced by other books now. Who knows.

    Here we have a recently published UK edition from Oneworld, with an excerpt and a bearded author photo.

  3. You reminded me of my experiences with 18thc Spanish literature at university. It was suggested I should study it, especially Jose Cadalso, the Enlightenment essayist, as I was expected to try for a First. It was so boring I never managed to engage with it, and left the final exam without finishing it, so threw away my chances of academic glory. I regretted it often afterwards, but still blame 18thc Spanish literature!

  4. For Specialists Only is a useful category, and that's where I put 18th century Spanish literature.

  5. If I can get my act together soon (a big if...), we might have another late 19th century Spanish-language work to celebrate before the weekend. Something by Rúben Darío actually, whom I see you're also reading. In the meantime, I consider myself a friend of any descendant of Lazarillo and Cervantes. Gracias for the introduction!

  6. Darío is so interesting -and baffling - he is messing up my schedule. But it will all work out in the end.

    Are you reading his "dialogue of the centaurs" poem? What in the devil is that thing?

    1. I prefer to leave the difficult poetry/whatsit stuff to you. I'm taking the safe way out and sticking to his way less-famous/less-difficult prose.

  7. There're some fine head-scratchers in the prose, too, actually, but nothing as far out as in some of the poems.