Book Review: World Books Review: A Chic ‘Celestina’

Written in the fifteenth century, “Celestina” remains a classic work of Spanish literature that, in a lively new English translation, proffers all the sex, drama, and violence necessary for an HBO mini-series.

Celestina by Fernando de Rojas. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, with an introduction by Roberto González Echeverría. Yale University Press, 250 pages, $22.

I first read “Celestina” in my literature class in Argentina when I was fifteen and the military had just taken power. Once I became a fluent reader of fifteenth-century Spanish, the book turned out to be exhilarating, a story chock-full of passion, sexual tension, and cunning. The book provided material for hours of debate on morality, sexuality, premarital sex, and above all, in the context of my all girl’s school, women’s sexual desire – this at a time when the military established a strict code of censorship that banned a long list of topics from schools.

The test of time for literature is that there is a certain textual density that is activated and revived once the social function of the work has lost relevance. “Celestina” is a powerful case in point. While it worked as an effective critique of mores at the time, its attraction now is that it weaves a powerful plot, presents human and lovable characters, and moves the action along in a swift manner.

The book, divided into twenty-one dialogues in prose, was not meant to be a play, but it boasts the tempo of well-timed drama. The plot is simple enough: Celestina is a procuress who restores hymens and sells the body of young maidens as virgins – over and over again. She is hired by the wealthy Calisto to mediate between him and the beautiful bourgeois Melibea.

At first, Celestina plays on Calisto’s insecurities in order to charge more for her services. She enlists the help of Calisto’s two servants, and promises to split their master’s pay in a mutually beneficial deal. When she refuses to keep her promise, they kill her, and are immediately beheaded in punishment.

Calisto and Melibea, grief notwithstanding, carry out a one-month love affair until the girlfriends of Calisto’s two dead servants plan to make their illicit sexual liaison public as revenge. Calisto dies when he falls off a ladder; Melibea confesses to her parents that she is no longer a virgin and jumps to her death out of a tower. The laments of Melibea’s elderly parents close the text.

The new translation by Margaret Sayers Peden serves up the freshness and naughtiness of the text while inviting a new generation of readers into the rich melodrama of a book that, although it is a classic, draws readers in not “because it is good for them,” but rather because it is fun.

In their first sexual encounter, for example, Calisto responds to Melibea’s complaints that he is damaging her clothing with “Mistress, mine, he who wishes to eat the bird must first pluck off the feathers.” Melibea’s servant, eavesdropping on the situation, comments, “Here I am burning with jealousy, and she being elusive in order to be begged! Ah, yes, the sounds are quieting, there is no need for me to step between them to establish peace.”

Peden skillfully renders the spirit of a fifteenth-century text using mostly contemporary English. Her use of a few words in Spanish (señora, señor), the care with which she describes the town, the literal translation of curses, and the use of the laments (“O Dear Mother”, O such a wretch am I!”) work as colorful reminders that this society was very different from ours. I am grateful for her decision to replace “Ha, ha, ha” with “he laughs.” Onomatopeia will probably never be the same after internet-chats and text messaging.

“Celestina” was first published anonymously in 1499. A year later a new version appeared, signed by law student Fernando de Rojas, a converso, who had married a conversa. With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the establishment of tribunals of the Inquisition, Jews who wished to remain in Spain had to convert to Christianity. These “new Christians” or conversos got to keep their positions and property but were under constant suspicion. While Rojas seems to have led a comfortable life, members of his family of origin, as well as his family by marriage, suffered persecution.

Under the rule of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, Spain was unified and transitioned from the Middle Ages to the Modern era under the sign of a strong monarchy, a unified nation, and a homogeneity brought forth by the expulsion of the Jews and the military victory over the Arabs. While the Middle Ages was a moment of advancement and creativity, in what we can call a multicultural society avant-la-lettre, the period’s end was marked by the Inquisition, the obsession with purity of blood and lineage, and also by imperial expansion.

Critic Tzvetan Todorov has lamented that the Spaniards’ arrival in the Americas and their encounter with the indigenous populations took place a few months after the political decision to expel the Jews, exile the Arabs, and create a homogeneous nation. Some scholars have read “Celestina” as a symbol of this moment of troubled change in Spanish society.

“Celestina” draws from some medieval practices, yet it is clearly positioned within a new world where greed is paramount. On a more positive note, Rojas’s surprisingly contemporary women characters signify a change in attitude as well. Areúsa defends her choice to reject service and instead live alone as a prostitute (“Base is he who behaves basely. Actions determine nobility; we are all, after all, children of Adam and Eve. On our own each of us should try to be good and not look for virtue in the nobility of ancestors.”); and Melibea’s complaint about Calisto’s shortcomings as a lover (“o my life, my señor! How have you wanted that I lose the title of virgin for such brief delight”) are incredibly up-to-date.

The text is prefaced by a thorough and insightful introduction by Yale Unversity professor Roberto González Echeverría. My only reservation is that, perhaps out of zeal, Echeverría claims that Celestina “is recognized by scholars and critics as being second only to the Quijote as a work of prose fiction in the Spanish language.” While this consensus exists among some critics of Spanish peninsular literature, it is rooted in a lack of recognition of the wealth and richness of Latin American literature.

Besides that questionable judgment, Echeverría places the text at the threshold of an era, serving as a fascinating link between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He offers an erudite reading of the text, its structure and its characters, and gives the reader a historical and sociological context from which to read the work. He places “Celestina” within a literary tradition that starts in Roman comedy and has shaped a legacy of works as contemporary as Severo Sarduy’s “Cobra,” and Gabriel García Márquez´s “Eréndida.” His and Margaret Sayers Peden admirable efforts prove that, even after five centuries, “Celestina” is a work of literature that has all the sex, drama, and violence necessary for an HBO mini-series.

Mónica Szurmuk is Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Instituto Mora in Mexico City. She is the author of “Mujeres en viaje: escritos y testimonios,” “Women in Argentina, Early Travel Narratives,” “Memoria y ciudadanía,” and co-editor of the “Diccionario de estudios culturales latinoamericanos.”


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