With my next book I am remaining on the Iberian Peninsula, which I take it was the literary hotspot in Europe around 1500. This one is “Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas, published 1499 presumably a few years after it was written.
There are interesting elements to this novel. First of all the subject matter is quite different from the previous novels I have been through. Here are no mighty heroes or glorious battles. Instead this is a love story gone terribly wrong. It features a lovesick gentleman called Calisto who enlists the help of an old bawd called Celestina to win over Melibea, the daughter of an even wealthier citizen of the town where the story takes place. Celestina dabbles in magic and all sorts of unsavory stuff and somehow she does manage to turn the head of young Melibea who falls hopelessly in love with Calisto. Celestina and Calistos’ two servants Semporio and Parmeno consider the affair a golden opportunity to milk Calisto of his riches and plot together to make it work. Once successful however they turn greedy and end up killing each other. Calisto and Melibea and not better off. Calisto falls down a ladder and breaks his head and Melibea throws herself off the roof.
That is a fairly bizarre story.
Secondly the story is written strictly as a dialogue. There is not a single descriptive line in the entire book and that at first seems like a very modern trait. Clearly the story was meant to be read aloud, almost like a stage play.
I normally like dialogue based stories and find that lengthy descriptive passages are a burden to a text. But in the case of “Celestina” the dialogue often turns into lengthy declamations, stilted and elaborate and it totally takes the pace out of the story.
That is also a problem since the story is supposed to be a comedy. A brief glance at the summary above clearly reveals a potential for a hilariously dark comedy of Monty Python’ish proportions, but the lengthy monologue ruins the comedic timing and the story never becomes funny. A shame really, because it seems to be the intent of the book. Maybe 500 years ago people found this sort of declamation a riot, but that has certainly lost its lure over the centuries.
Instead the book retains a morbid charm by alternating between characters who build themselves up with ridiculous self-importance and those who cut them down with crude remarks. This theme is also found in the general plot as the characters devise device complicated deceits and conspiracies to their own end only to find that the result is completely out of their control and essentially random. It is also the story of big and deep love that seems to be based on silly infatuation and comes to a brutal conclusion through random events that has nothing to do with anything. It is not Melibea’s parents who discover and end the affair, it is not the town constables or the heavy that Elicia and Areusa, the lovers of dead Semporio and Parmeno, send to kill Calisto, that intercepts them, but a clumsy misstep on the ladder.
Retold today this could be a great story I would like to hear or read and it would be funny. As it is it is still interesting as a window into a world 500 years ago and to what people thought was funny back then. I am always baffled by how cheap lives are in these old novels and the importance people assign to things we would not think twice of today. Taken seriously, which I think would be a mistake with this book, arranged marriages are a cause of much grief, but you can also say that all the principle characters are digging their own graves through stupidity, greed and starry eyed infatuation.
The backstory behind “Celestina” is something about that de Rojas was Jew but forced to convert to avoid being burned on the stake, something that apparently happened to some of his family members, and that “Celestina” is a bitter exposé of hypocrisies in a world that has condemned his kind. I am not entirely sure how to read that in the story, but I have a feeling that a story about Fernando de Rojas himself would be at least as interesting as his book.