Enriqueta Zafra, ed. and Anne J. Cruz, trans. The Life and Times of Mother Andrea/La vida y costumbres de la Madre Andrea.
An anonymous manuscript from circa 1650 that narrates the story of a brothel--presumably located in Madrid--its sexual workers, and wide social spectrum of clients, according to the testimony of its own procuress (a rarity indeed, since brothels administration was reserved for men), sounds appealing at first glance. The Life and Times of Mother Andrea/La vida y costumbres de la Madre Andrea was very likely penned by a converted Jew from the Iberian Peninsula and found in an Utrecht antique bookstore three centuries later by Hispanist Jonas A. Van Praag, which only adds depth and interest to this riveting picaresque narration.
It is known that prostitution was socially permissible and even became tacitly supported in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the Catholic Church, whose theologians considered necessary the very existence of public brothels in order to avoid greater evils such as incest, sodomy, rape, etc. But as Enriqueta Zafra explains in her introduction, when in 1623-and within the context of Counter-Reformation--King Phillip IV eventually prohibited prostitution, "[it] did not disappear nor did the concern about unenclosed women, who before, during, and after the ending of legalized prostitution kept slipping through the system and became associated with picaresque behavior" (7). E. Zafra and A. Cruz-respectively, editor and translator for this edition--have in common their expertise in the picaresque genre and a scholarly interest in the misogynist perception that picaras and prostitutes share in Early-Modern Spain where female figures who are considered to be out of control are primarily sexualized and stigmatized. This anonymous novella, with Mother Andrea as the brothel administrator and main voice--narrating in first person the account of her own life--follows on the Celestinesque tradition of the female picaresque in Spain with texts such as La picara Justina (1605), La hija de Celestina (1612), and La garduna de Sevilla (1642) as its precursors. All female protagonists in these picaresque tales share an elevated dose of physical beauty and artfulness that allow them to take advantage of their male counterparts, while pleasantly engaging the reader. The common goal of such a portrayal of crime and deceitfulness though is to allegedly warn the reader with its moralizing message.
Since its original publication in 1958 in Revista de Literatura by Van Praag, The Life and Times of Mother Andrea has been forgotten until now. In her introduction to the volume, Zafra explains that the present edition follows the eighteenth-century copy of the text found by Van Praag, with the intention of complementing the late Hispanist's work and having in mind the modern reader. With this aim, "annotating the text differently in the original and the translation, although there are bound to be crossovers, we [Zafra and Cruz] allow readers to reach their own conclusions, to wander through the pages of the parallel texts and, in doing so, to achieve a fuller and more enlightening reading experience" (23). In fact, the reader here gets "two for the price of one" since we find both Zafra's and Cruz's expertise reunited in this edition.
Firstly, the introductory study by Zafra offers a compelling and thorough overview of the female picaresque and the discourse on prostitution in early modern society, including topics as relevant as: the general discourse on women; the debates among moralists on the legalization of prostitution; the picaresque text as a space "where men could be entertained and amused, while remaining free of disease and guilt" (4); the rules and dynamics in brothels; and the legal ordinances on health and their lack of compliance or enforcement; among others. No less interesting is the portion of the study devoted by Zafra to analyzing certain characteristics of the text--related to the lexicon, graphemes, sociolinguistics, etc.--in order to throw light on the anonymous authorship of the manuscript and to link it to a converted Jew or "converso from the Iberian Peninsula most probably living in Amsterdam, but who could also have resided at some point of his life in other converso communities, such as the ones in Venice or Livorno, and even perhaps southern France" (17-18).
Secondly, the contemporary reader will find in Cruz's translation the perfect balance between a more modern conversational English that makes less challenging the understanding of this seventeenth-century manuscript, while still preserving the identity of the original text and portraying the Baroque culture in full color. I particularly admire Cruz's ability to convey in such a skillful and accomplished way the complexity of the double entendres, satires, puns, proverbs, and the rhetorical richness intrinsic to Mother Andrea's marginal world. The annotations to her very own English translation of the text for this edition deserves, in my opinion, a very special mention since they concisely unveil the rather complex semiotic universe portrayed in the novella, and what we could call a catalog of cultural curiosities. Just a random example, opening the book in page fifty-three: when describing the garments of a poet and client of Mother Andrea's brothel, Cruz offers a note describing Walloon collars as "unstarched," completed with information that is key to fully understand the cultural referent as well as the richness of the Baroque text. In this case, Cruz observes that these kinds of collars "were unpopular in Spain [and] identified with the Dutch heretics and the Flemish" (note 75), which obviously encompasses a negative moral connotation within the context of the Spanish Catholic Reformation that we could not even find if we used the main resource for scholars of Spain's Golden Age, Diccionario de Autoridades (published between 1726 and 1739). The following annotation also discloses the cultural value associated with "Chinese dogs" for a sentence that compares this bald canine kind with the description of the poor and threadbare garments of the above mentioned poet: "Hairless dogs were bred by the Chinese for use as ratters on ships. In the seventeenth century, they were a common sight at ports" (53, note 76). Thus, as readers we do not only get to understand the author's election of a specific referent within a particular context, but we are also exposed to the vast universe of cultural curiosities informing the Baroque aesthetics, which are seldom fully comprehended by an unaware reader.
In summary, we owe to E. Zafra and A. Cruz the precious recovery and careful edition as well as the exquisite translation of this must-read, seventeenth-century picaresque narrative, that can finally now be added to the scholarly debates on Spain's Early-Modern period, in general; and in particular, to the studies on the picaresque novel, gender studies, and cultural studies for which it will be, no doubt, a highly valuable contribution.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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