- The Moor and the Novel: Narrating Absence in Early Modern Spain by Mary B. Quinn
The Moor and the Novel: Narrating Absence in Early Modern Spain considers descriptions of Moors and Moriscos in Spanish ballads, Moorish novels (El Abencerraje, Guerras civiles de Granada: Historia de los bandos de los Zegríes y los Abencerrajes), a “historical” novel (Guerras civiles de Granada: La guerra de los moriscos), and in Don Quijote. As such, it encompasses much more than its title indicates. While not everyone will agree with Mary Quinn’s well-grounded arguments, her carefully structured and thoughtful analysis requires that it be considered alongside other studies on Muslim portrayals in early modern Spanish literature, as well as among those works that detail the characteristics which led to the modern novel.
Quinn’s introduction, entitled “Muslim Absence as Literary Aperture,” aptly sets the historical stage by summarizing the relationship of Spain’s Muslims and Christians from their apparent convivencia in the medieval period to the Moriscos’ ultimate expulsion, beginning in 1609. She identifies key events from 1492 as important markers for the construction of Spain’s national identity (6). This nation building, Quinn argues, necessarily involved the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Building upon John Armstrong’s work on myths and their relationship to the construction of national identity, Quinn asserts that the Reconquest was used as an identifying myth that aimed to solidify Spain as a homogenized Christian State. She continues by noting examples of tensions that Spain faced in the sixteenth century, which led to nostalgia for times past. The portrayals of Muslims in sixteenth-century Spanish literature did not convey their contemporary circumstances, but rather were idealized portrayals of pre-Reconquest Moors found principally in Moorish ballads and novels. These romanticized Moors served as a coping mechanism for the stressful historical realities of the sixteenth century.
Chapter two, “Epic Nostalgia: The Ballads of the Cancionero musical de palacio and the Vihuela Songbooks,” is one of the most valuable contributions of Quinn’s book, since little critical work has been done on the Spanish ballads in these early sixteenth-century songbooks. Their ballads treating Moorish themes are important precedents of the romances moriscos of the latter part of the sixteenth century and also the Moorish novels. Quinn asserts that these, and subsequent ballads, helped develop the narrative form (32). The ballads with Moorish themes, furthermore, offer examples of idealized Moors and point to a nostalgia for times before 1492. Of particular importance is Quinn’s analysis of the accompanying music to these ballads which underscores the emotions felt with this longing. Quinn posits that the impressive number of printed Vihuela songbooks and the desire to return to better times “demonstrate that Spanish Christians were starting to formulate their national identity as one that was dependent on the Muslim presence in Spain” (50).
Chapter three, “The Novel Moor: El Abencerraje and Ginés Pérez de Hita’s Guerras civiles de Granada: Historia de los bandos de los Zegríes y los Abencerrajes,” continues with the scrutiny of the idealized Moor in the best-selling Moorish novel. [End Page 606] Quinn applies an Orientalist reading to the love stories of Abencerraje (most scholars refer to the Moor as Abindarráez) and Narváez, and ultimately concludes the inadequacy of such a reading. Relating an emasculated Abencerraje to the lyric and an insufficient Christian hero—Narváez—to the epic, she shows that both characters fail to live up to their corresponding genres. Quinn concludes that “El Abencerraje illustrates a failed search for a means to convey national identity” (59).
Quinn continues by examining the distinctive features of the Moorish novel in Pérez de Hita’s Historia de los bandos. She indicates that any neat categorization of this genre is confounded by the Sultan Queen’s character, as well as by the concluding episodes involving the marriage and conversion to Christianity of Gazul and Lindaraxa, and King Ferdinand’s trouble quelling the unrest of the Moriscos in the Alpujarras region. These last two scenes point...