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diacritics 33.3/4 (2003) 173-187

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On the Subject of Fiction

Islands and the Emergence of the Novel

Realms and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket.
—William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra


Drifting among the topoi the Middle Ages inherited from classical culture, islands held on to many of their characteristics throughout this long period and simultaneously nurtured new paradigms, which led to multiple and profound transformations of the motif in early modern imaginaries. In the medieval period the island serves simply as a setting, as a site for the articulation of fiction and reality, to which many texts from different traditions can attest, from philosophical debates to romances to clerical works, from northern Europe to the south of the Iberian peninsula. It is in the literature of late medieval Iberia, precisely, that a major shift in the use of insular geographies can be documented, one that bore profound consequences for the development of genres and, especially, for the consideration of fiction itself. When we reach the Renaissance, there occurs a discursive separation between fiction and reality. The shift to a clearer separation is conveyed in both Renaissance cartography and narrative in the form of the island as an ideal metaphor for such distancing. This shift has a major structural implication for the construction of new genres. By separating fiction from reality, the literary solutions that come forth give rise to the modern novel, of which Don Quijote (1605, 1615) is considered to be the first. In cartography, the result is the emergence of the atlas.1 The use of the island is pervasive in the book of chivalry and is directly borrowed from this genre in Don Quijote. Through a process of metaphorization, the use of the island as a structure in Don Quijote is one of the traits marking the difference between the book of chivalry and the novel.2

The distance established by the relocation of marvelous contents to an island and the metaphoric use of the motif in the modern novel reveal the configuration of a new concept of fiction. In fact, Spanish Golden Age literary theories elaborated the separation of fiction and reality in great detail, and the book of chivalry, with its insistent use of the insular, became exemplary of what was then to be perceived, now in clearly negative [End Page 173] terms, as "fiction," affecting thereon all engagements with fiction itself, whether from art, science, or politics.

The main attacks on chivalric literature in the Iberian Peninsula were of a moral nature; that is, criticism centered not on the structure of romance but on its pretended moral implications and its effects on readers. Among the zealous attackers were Joan Lluís Vives, Pedro Malón de Chaide, Pero Mexía, Alonso de Fuentes, Arias Montano, Gaspar de Astete, Gonzálo Fernández de Oviedo, Miguel Sánchez de Lima. All these criticisms are cited by the influential nineteenth-century critic Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, who, four centuries later, concurs by writing that "eran antiguos y muy justificados los clamores de los moralistas contra los libros de caballerías, que ellos miraban como un perpetuo incentivo de la ociosidad y una plaga de las costumbres" [Menéndez y Pelayo 440] (the clamor of moralists against books of chivalry, which they saw as perpetual incentive of idleness and a plague on customs, were old and quite justified), thus establishing a national-critical continuity in the judgment of both the chivalric genre and its fictional core. The two best-known Golden Age attacks on books of chivalry that argue for a structural reform based on morality and verisimilitude in such texts are Juan de Valdés's Diálogo de la lengua (1535) and Alonso López Pinciano's Philosophia antigua poetica (1596).

Valdés's criticism focuses on the way chivalric fictions fail to present their "lies" —which is the nature of every fiction, according to Valdés—as believable truths. The failure is due to the anachronisms that plague books of chivalry, illustrated by...