From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 16.1 (1996): 106-08.
Copyright © 1996, The Cervantes Society of America

Williamsen, Amy R. Co(s)mic Chaos: Exploring Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 1994. x + 189 pp.

     Equipped with a remarkably clear and readable style, a sharp eye for irregularities and ironies, and a playful sense of humor, Amy Williamsen has taken a tack in interpreting the Persiles that diverges noticeably from those of previous “global” interpreters of the work. She does not struggle to make the romance’s myriad episodes fit into a thematic or allegorical pattern. Rather, she likens the texture of the Persiles to the seemingly orderless geometrical sets studied by the controversial “chaos” theory of modern mathematics and science. She is clearly fascinated by the open-endedness and the infinite possibilities generated both by “chaotic” series and by Cervantes’s final work, and draws parallels between them in the following respects: 1) recursive symmetry, which


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repeats patterns, but with a difference, eventually resulting in configurations that appear to bear no resemblance to the original pattern; 2) the distancing and multiple levels of narrative authority, which remind Williamsen more of Don Quijote and Coloquio de los perros than of “straight” romances like Heliodorus’s Aethiopica; 3) the constant interruptions of the forward movement of Periandro’s and Auristela’s pilgrimage, which resemble the non-linear nature of fractal geometry; 4) the parody or self-mocking inherent in Cervantes’s treatment of Byzantine romance heroes, plot patterns, and value systems.
     The study’s strong attraction for modern readers of Cervantes is likely to be twofold: 1) Williamsen has an uncanny way of ferreting out inconsistencies and paradoxes beneath the conventional surface of the romance’s “idealistic” discourse. She manages to make the work into a much funnier and more surprising book than most readers have previously imagined. 2) By being content to “let disorder be,” she seldom tries to fit round pegs into square holes in interpreting individual passages and events. Thus she appreciates to the fullest the adventurous, haphazard, and serio-comical nature of the protagonists’ wanderings.
     Ultimately, however, “chaos,” in its scientific meaning and in the ordinary meaning into which this critic sometimes slips, has its limits. Not only does the case for the Persiles’s subversiveness sometimes come to be overstated, but readers of the study may find that the deconstructive tendencies attributed to the work end up undermining the force of specific humorous and / or ironic passages. Although the examples given are numerous, they are not massive enough, in view of the romance’s length and sprawling plot, to justify claims that irony and parody “pervade” the work or that the text “constantly” questions narrative authority (and other types of authority). What is still needed in post-modern criticism of the Persiles is a new Sentido y forma del Persiles or a work comparable to Alban Forcione’s two books, which would gloss (or deconstruct) the text in a more systematic and detailed way. Not even Diana de Armas Wilson’s admirable Allegories of Love quite fulfills this role. As it is, many readers may not be satisfied with Williamsen’s evidence for her main thesis, given the “mind-boggling” complexity (the author’s term) of chaotic phenomena and of the Persiles.
     Furthermore, the study is almost exclusively concerned with questioning (i.e., doubting) sources of meaning and authority found in Byzantine romances, in late Hapsburg ideology, and in previous studies on the Persiles. Given Williamsen’s theoretical stances, it is understandable that she would not want to substitute another global interpretation. Yet, without something of this nature, one begins to wonder what the point of the humor, irony, and distancing may be. She draws insightful parallels with Don Quijote, but does not make clear that, in Cervantes’s earlier work, the playful narration and the use of multi-layered authority are carefully reinforced and refined from one episode to the next and are indissolubly linked to the themes of madness, illusion, literature vs. life, etc. Thus the Quijote is much more a work which “does what it says” and in which the story and the way it is told play off each other to enrich meaning. Williamsen’s study does not claim to give us a central key to the Persiles beyond its “chaotic” nature, its self-reflexivity, and its self-parody; thus, it

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is still tempting to attribute some of her examples of textual inconsistency, not to conscious irony, but to clumsiness, oversight, and inexplicable quirks on Cervantes’s part.
     Finally, Co(s)mic Chaos (like Wilson’s study in this respect) seems to take for granted or ignore the ponderous, semi-Ciceronian “high” style in which the romance is written. This style, which routinely leaves nothing unexpressed for the reader to supply and is wrapped up in its own subordinate clauses and symmetrical constructions, holds a fascination of its own, but it is not agile enough to yield the constant irony and humor of Cervantes’s more famous narrations. For example, the lightning speed of the barbarian’s shooting of an arrow in I,4 corresponds to this ornate sentence:

el bárbaro gobernador, indignado e impaciente sobremanera, puso una grande y aguda flecha en el arco, y desviándole de sí cuanto pudo extenderse el brazo izquierdo, puso la empulguera con el derecho junto al diestro oído, y disparó la flecha con tan buen tino y con tanta furia, que en un instante llegó a la boca de Bradamiro, y se la cerró quitándole el movimiento de la lengua y sacándole el alma, con que dejó admirados, atónitos y suspensos a cuantos allí estaban.

One of my undergraduate professors once quipped about Pepita Jiménez that “all the characters talk the way Juan Valera writes!” Similarly, there is not much distancing between the speech of the Persiles’s characters (even the few lower-class ones) and its authorial narrator. The dialogue, like that of late medieval sentimental romances and pastoral romances, makes massive use of rhetorical setpieces. On the other hand, could many sentences in the Persiles rival the understatement of Don Quijote’s famous remark after the ride on Clavileño: “Sancho, pues vos queréis que se os crea lo que habéis visto en el cielo, yo quiero que vos me creáis a mí lo que vi en la cueva de Montesinos. Y no os digo más”? This important consideration ought to modify, to my mind, the extent to which we see the Persiles as subverting expectations. No reader can honestly come away from this study believing, as many used to, that the Persiles is “devoid of irony,” but there may be disagreement on its pervasiveness and intensity.
     A careful reading of Williamsen’s study, besides being a pleasure in itself, is bound to make our subsequent readings and re-readings of the Persiles richer in many ways. It will also open our minds to much-needed and previously unsuspected connections between narrative art and other, often widely diverging disciplines. Yet it may leave many feeling that Cervantes’s final romance, like the hieratic, but all-too-human Auristela herself, is still very much an enigma.

David J. Hildner
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes