- “Exemplary” Administration: Monipodio’s “Libro de Memoria” in Rinconete y Cortadillo
In the prologue to his 1613 Novelas ejemplares, Miguel de Cervantes proposes the collection be considered a “mesa de trucos” [billiard table] placed in the public square (18).1 It is a space for honest entertainment, challenging the reader to act like a billiard player and follow the movement of the author’s shot as the balls scatter across the table’s surface.2 Take the “quasi-picaresque” novella3 Rinconete y Cortadillo (=> RyC) as an example. Short on plot but long on detail, at first glance it looks like a mockery of the Sevillian criminal underclass; this article, however, will argue that the novella is better understood as a parody of administration. The key element for such a reading is Monipodio’s “libro de memoria” [notebook], an object that is as easy to overlook as it is ultimately revealing—like a billiard ball that seems to sit outside the main action of the play but that, in hindsight, turns out to be crucial to the shot’s final trajectory. [End Page 250]
As with so many supports for administrative work, the libro de memoria is often passed over, its nature as a material object ignored.4 It belongs to Monipodio, leader of the Sevillian criminal “cofradía”5 whose records are kept in the peculiar notebook. There are two main problems with this practice, one obvious, and one less so. First, Monipodio is illiterate, requiring others to both write and read for him. Second, the libro is the wrong sort of book for keeping important records: several of its pages would have been covered with a coating that made them erasable, as is confirmed in the novella. The book, then, is as inadequate for keeping records as Monipodio is for taking them down in the first place, a contradiction which invites a reading of the novella as a fiction of administration.
While RyC could be a simple mockery of a criminal underclass aping their social betters, there is evidence both internal and external to the text that suggests Monipodio instead ought to be seen as a stand-in for the upper rungs of the social ladder. The novella indicts the blind reliance of a society at large on unexamined administrative practice. With the growth of the Spanish state, more and more depended upon these processes, something underlined by Cervantes’s own experience. Monipodio’s criminal enterprise mirrors legitimate business and political practice, but through its parodic presentation it invites the reader to think through the contradictory connections that exist between administration, authority, memory, and writing. Ultimately, the novella points towards the dual function of writing and administration—two practices which produce the very authority that they symbolize.
Cervantes and Administration
Cervantes’s own history with administration is not a happy one. Some document, record, or letter was always dragging him down, beginning [End Page 251] with his military career and ending with his imprisonment for accounting irregularities during his time as a tax collector. First, it was a set of letters he had on his person when he was taken captive on his way home from military service. After fighting on the Marquesa in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, forty on his ship died, and more than a hundred were wounded, including Cervantes who injured his left hand (Garcés 74). Some four years later, on his way home via Barcelona, a storm hit the group of ships taking him to harbor and he was captured by corsairs who brought him to Algiers.6
Cervantes had hoped those letters, recommending his valor at Lepanto and bearing the signatures of important figures in the Spanish military, would gain him a position in the government. Instead, they led his captors to believe he was worth a hefty prize, ensuring that he stayed in Algiers until 1580 when he was finally ransomed for five-hundred ducats in Spanish gold, raised by his mother and through charity (77, 197–98). As a captive awaiting ransom, the letters proved a mixed blessing: because he was deemed “valuable,” he was treated better than other captives (95). That relative latitude may have...