- Cervantes' Epic Novel: Empire, Religion, and the Dream Life of Heroes in Persiles
Who has never wondered what authors of the past might think if they could rise from the dead to hear our extravagant interpretations of their writings? In this series of thematic commentaries, never straying far from the text, Michael Armstrong-Roche offers the closest thing to a reading Cervantes would recognize as pretty much what he was trying to do in Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda . Avoiding controversial theories or fashionable methods, he derives his hermeneutics from Biblical typography, undeniably part of the cultural system of Cervantes' own day. It is difficult to object, then, that he twists the meaning of Persiles by contemplating it through an extrinsic lens. These pages come across as plausible descriptions of Cervantes' intentions in his last, posthumous narrative.
This book should therefore put to rest the lingering though largely discredited reading of Persiles as a capitulation to the Counter-Reformation. For generations, its overt religious content was seen as an anomalous shift, at the end of its author's life, from a critical, reform-minded sensibility to a reactionary, orthodox one. Although studies pointing out elements of irony and parody undermining this view have appeared over the last two decades, Armstrong-Roche's is the first to do so without resorting to theoretical frameworks that risk being considered anachronistic, such as Armas Wilson's feminist allegory of the androgyne, Williamsen's application of chaos theory, my own reading of Persiles in the light of postcolonial theory, or Nerlich's cabbalistic "decoding" of hidden meanings based on numerology. Such approaches have made it all too easy for more traditional scholars to cling steadfastly to an outmoded view. These detailed, highly nuanced readings should persuade even skeptics that something very different is going on here than an apology for the Council of Trent.
The foundation of Armstrong-Roche's argument is laid in the first two of his four chapters. The protagonists of Persiles follow a trajectory leading to the celestial city of Rome from the "barbarian" North, where Christian practice is "less than perfect." Cervantes thus raises the expectation that this will be a narrative of spiritual progress, but in the event that expectation is systematically flouted. Ironically, despite its apparently more developed legal system and religious institutions, in practice the Catholic South turns out to be just [End Page 413] as barbaric as the Barbarian North. Making this point in his first chapter, Armstrong-Roche offers the most thorough demonstration to date of how far short Persiles' corrupt Rome falls of the idealized "city of God on earth" (74-97). In Chapter 2 he shows that while the practice of a deeply spiritual Pauline Christianity predominates among the Northern protagonists and their companions, they find only empty ceremony taking the place of true charity in the Catholic South. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is the story of Antonio de Villaseñor, a choleric Spaniard who, despite his nation's role as "defender of the faith," is only converted to sincere Christian fellow-feeling by Ricla, the barbarian woman who, having saved him from starvation after his shipwreck, becomes his wife and the mother of his children. Though he teaches her the doctrines of the Church, it is from her that he comes to understand their true meaning. Armstrong-Roche's commentary on this episode (129-53), as in several other instances, is the most painstaking elucidation yet published.
As readers of Persiles will recall, most of the interpolated stories proliferating in its pages concern characters forced against their will into sexual encounters or arranged marriages, generally though not always women. In Armstrong-Roche's interpretation, resistance to sexual violence, patriarchal power, and social pressure operates simultaneously on several levels: as a rejection of barbaric customs, such as the cleansing of stained honor through bloodshed; as a critique of Counter-Reformation control over public life, especially marriage; and as an affirmation of the crucial role of consent in love, a characteristic...