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Picaro – The Forgotten Antihero

Picaro – The Forgotten Antihero

As dilettantism and disruption go, the picaro, a jester-like protagonist of narratives reaching back to 16th century Spain, plays an important part in how we view black humour and coping with disillusion today.

The picaro, a rogue character, usually poor and of questionable morals did not whitewash the tough living conditions of poor people in the so called Golden Age in Spain, but described them with merciless satire and a straight view on reality. The popular genre turned contemporary narrative conventions up-side-down. Suddenly, an anti-hero was telling the story in first person instead of a glorious knight or a good-hearted shepherd. Human characteristics like envy, cruelty and spite were exposed and the overarching social atmosphere of hunger, war and misery gave reason to mockery and hilarious dialogues.

Albert Eibl, Austrian publisher and literary scholar states about Simplicius Simplicissimus, the most known German picaresque work describing the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, that “the approach to negate dreadful life situations with humour was a very modern one.” “It counteracted”, he continues, “the then contemporary baroque literature, which described life rather in a gloomy moll-tone depicted of humour. Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, the author of Simplicissimus, describes life with glee, cynicism and ultimately with a take on metaphysics towards the end of the work, where the antihero turns into a hermit, renouncing booze, lust and other vice to reach immortality and purification.”

Like this, the picaro has carved a modern view of facing off hardship with humour, resilience and self-reliance which is valid until today, both as disruption against the establishment and as psychological coping strategy. However, the figure of the rogue as such has almost disappeared from literature, even if 20th and 21 Century referrals like Thomas Mann’s “Felix Krull” or Daniel Kehlmann’s recently published “Tyll” have been drawing inspiration from its rich milieu.

Time to rediscover an entertaining and well-written genre, for example by having a peek into an old copy of one of its glittering pieces like Francisco de Quevedo’s “El Busc√≥n” or indeed Grimmelshausen.

Talking about forgotten books: Albert Eibl runs the publishing house “Das Vergessene Buch” (The Forgotten Book) which re-publishes outstanding works of German-language literature that for various reasons vanished from the face of culture, for example the work of Austro-Jewish exile author Maria Lazar (1895-1948).

Check out their website here.


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