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Carlos Rojas: Auto de fe [Auto-da-fé]

This was the book that first brought Rojas fame, as he won The Spanish National Narrative Prize for it. It is not a particularly easy work so it is easy to see why it has not been translated, as far as I can tell, into any other language. It is set in the period of Charles II of Spain but also in the period of the Spanish Inquisition. Charles II was known as The Bewitched as he suffered from various mental and physical disabilities, which many, including Charles himself, believed were caused by sorcery. This novel tells of Charles II and his problems both with sorcery and with the Inquisition, as seen through the eyes of his jester.

There are two closely related stories in his novel. The first is the jester telling his story (and thus the story of King Charles) to a committee of the Inquisition. The inquisitioners are relatively sympathetic to the jester, at least by our stereotypical view of the Inquisition. They are torn between deciding whether he is mad or possessed by the devil. Of course, the narrative purpose of the jester’s tale is to tell the tale of Charles II. The second, parallel, story is the story of Lazarus, as recounted by Charles II in a play he has written, called El autillo de Lázaro [The Owl of Lazarus] and performed by the buffoon and his brother, Felipe Próspero. The jester faints during the performance and his brother resuscitates him, for which he is burned at the stake by the Inquisition, hence the title of the book, Auto-da-fé (the Portuguese word is used in English) referring to both the sentence and execution of a judgement by the Inquisition. The two stories are told consecutively.

We learn from the jester about his early days. His mother had died giving birth to him, so he feels guilty that he killed his mother. His father remarried and his brother was born six years after his birth to his stepmother, Viviana. It was the king who named him. There were allegations that King Charles was the father of Felipe Próspero though, historically, this seems unlikely as the King was twice married and produced no child and it was believed that he was impotent. However, for the story this allegation is important, even if it might be historically inaccurate. It is known that the King had the bodies of his family exhumed to look at their corpses. In this book, he urges the jester to help him not only exhume his brother but to bring him back to life à la Lazarus, primarily because he believes that all his problems (which, historically, include political and economic problems) started only when Felipe Próspero was burned at the stake. Quite how his remains are to be found and reconstituted is a problem that the King does not seem to consider. Viviana had predicted soon after the birth of her son that the King would die in twenty years and, when the twenty years are up, he not surprisingly is concerned.

It is not an easy novel as we switch from the Inquisition and its questions (often repeated), to the jester’s early life, to his current life and to all the issues with the King. Is the jester, who may be mad, covering for his sins or is he in the hands of the devil (a key theme in Rojas’ work), a reliable narrator? In the King’s play, Lazarus is clearly not happy about being resuscitated but the jester somehow struggles along with his increasingly insane king, whose death will unleash calamity for Spain in the form of the War of Spanish Succession.

Publishing history

First published in 1969 by Ediciones Guadarrama
No English translation