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"Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka"

Barking Humans (c) 2010 Taelyen LLC


A Thesis in the Field of Foreign Literature, Language, and Culture for the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies

Harvard University, March 2012



Chapter II: Cervantes' Billiards


Genette summarizes the Odyssey as an extended amplification of the statement, “Ulysses comes home to Ithaca.” [24] Similarly, we might condense Cervantes’ “The Dogs’ Colloquy” into the headline: “Talking dogs reject witches’ account of human birth mother.” The source of the account is Cañizares, the mother in question Montiela, and both are pupils of the witch Camacha. All three witches were purportedly present at the birth of the dogs, with Camacha acting as midwife. Camacha tells Montiela “how she had changed her children into dogs because of some complaint she had against her,” adding a cryptic prophecy of when the dogs would return to their “natural form.” [25] Cañizares relates this story to the dog Berganza, whom she believes to be Montiela’s child. Berganza then tells this story to Scipio, on an evening when both dogs had mysteriously gained the power of speech. They agree to tell each other their life stories on successive nights, starting with Berganza, and he tells Scipio his life story along with digressions on various topics, culminating with his encounter with Cañizares. They evaluate and ultimately reject Cañizares’ story as lies, deception and wickedness (239). At the end, the dogs have jobs patrolling the grounds of the hospital where Campuzano undergoes his treatment. Throughout, Scipio interjects with his own reactions and admonitions, and the story ends at daybreak, Scipio’s personal history untold.  

“The Dogs’ Colloquy” is written in dialogue form. This format is not explained within the story itself, but rather within the previous story in the Exemplary Stories collection, “The Deceitful Marriage.” In that story, the solider Campuzano relates to his friend, Licentiate Peralta, the story of how he ended up in the hospital receiving the “sweat treatment” for his fourteen blistery buboes, which are symptoms of venereal disease. While in the hospital, he overheard the conversation between Berganza and Scipio, which he transcribed as a dialogue and shared with his friend.

Despite, or perhaps because of the subject matter involving deception leading to venereal disease, Cervantes explains the title of Exemplary Stories in the “Prologue” with his claim that “there is not one of them that does not afford a useful example.” [26] He writes:

My intention has been to set up in the public square of our country a billiard table where everyone may come to amuse himself without harm to body or soul; for decent and pleasing pastimes are profitable rather than harmful. One is not always in church or engaged in prayer, one is not always occupied with business matters, however important they may be. There is a time for recreation, when the tired mind seeks repose. [27]

If Exemplary Stories is a recreational pastime, its final story presents the most challenging of riddles. That “The Dogs’ Colloquy” is more complex than other contemporary works is a feature widely noted in the critical literature. For example, Allan K. Forcione describes the “riotous disorder in [Cervantes’] narrative form” [28] as one of many effects that “in their complexity go beyond those of any picaresque narration or Lucianic dialogue in Spanish literature.” [29]

The originality of the work stems from its departure from generic norms. L.A. Murillo identifies “the containment of a narrative substance within a dialogue form, novella y coloquio” as “the one feature that explains both the components and the method of this Cervantine alchemy.” [30] The “truly novelistic aspect” [31] of the work, he writes, was Cervantes’ addition of the rich characterizations of the dogs to the contemporary dialectic form of the colloquy. As a genre, the colloquy was “traditionally didactic, moralistic and censorious, and even mordantly satirical, and that could easily include philosophical or miscellaneous comment.” [32]

Just as Cervantes transformed the genres of pastoral and chivalric romance in his other works, “The Dogs’ Colloquy” represents the author’s own novelistic synthesis of the genres of the exemplary novel, the colloquy, and as outlined by Edward Aylward, the picaresque as well. [33] Aylward suggests that Cervantes may have depicted the author’s debate with his contemporary literary theorists about such transformations of genre through the depiction of the relationship between Berganza and Scipio:

[Ruth El Saffar points out] that Campuzano represents the author while his friend Peralta assumes the role of the reader. Taken together, these two characters represent the two parts of the creative process […] I would suggest that the second dog’s role in the Coloquio is to give concrete form to the haunting voice of literary theorists who constrain the writer’s creative instincts by trying to force him to work in accordance with established literary precepts. [34]

With this formulation, Cervantes’ experimental novelization of generic forms also includes the critical reaction against such experimentation. As a listener to Campuzano’s story, which in the telling follows a traditional literary style, Licentiate Peralta is encouraging and provides sympathetic interjections throughout, only taking issue with the introduction of the fantastic element of the talking dogs at the very end. By contrast, Scipio is a far more active dissenter, taking issue to the form and structure of Berganza’s narrative throughout. Scipio cuts episodes short, he reins in digressions, and he even urges Berganza to reveal the story of Cañizares, which is the climactic mystery of the novel, well before Berganza as storyteller deems it appropriate. Scipio, it appears, would have Berganza tell his story in the clipped manner used at the start of this chapter, the condensed headline instead of a richly-ornamented narrative slowly unveiled.

This contrast between the digression-laden storytelling technique of “The Dogs’ Colloquy” and the literary account of “The Deceitful Marriage” is commented on by Peter N. Dunn, who identifies a symmetrical tension between the two works:

…the orally delivered story of the marriage is highly literary in its style, tightly organized around internal symmetries, and ends epigrammatically...The oral story is an exemplary demonstration of the literary art of the novella. The Coloquio's written text, on the other hand, transcribes a conversation which, although it is directed by the familiar trope of life as journey, escapes from the speaker's control at every turn. [35]

Cervantes’ novelistic experimentations with genre in these stories include the use of several complex approaches to narrative, and the most distinctive approaches involve what Genette defines as “narrative voice,” including the narrative levels described by William Nelles in the introduction. Nelles cites “The Dogs’ Colloquy” as an example of embedding with a frame story, [36] and this technique is repeated recursively in the story itself. Steven Hutchinson, comparing Cervantes’s text to the chains of attribution in Islamic scholarship, outlines the nested discursive levels contained within the story as it telescopes from Cervantes’ novel to Camacha’s divination. [37] The other Exemplary Stories have no comparable usage of narrative levels.

Another aspect of narrative voice in Genette is the function of the narrator, and Berganza cycles through all of them. In addition to the default narrative function, Berganza interrupts his life story with a directing function to comment on its organization; a communication function eliciting reactions from the narrattee; a testimonial function to confirm his personal involvement; and an ideological function such as when he offers general commentary about types of people and occupations.

These interruptions follow a pattern, as do the individual episodes that comprise Berganza’s life story—excepting the encounter with Cañizares, which must be treated separately. Each episode has similar types of interruptions, whether Scipio providing interpretive commentary or Berganza making general statements about the types of people involved, and each has similar patterns of shifts in narrative time between scenes, pauses, summaries and ellipses. The episodes typically start and end with a scene told in singulative frequency, i.e. the event being described happened only once. The middle part of the episode switches into a repeating, or iterative, frequency to describe not a specific event, but rather a way of life and set of habits. For example, when Berganza says that “in the silence and solitude of my siestas, I would reflect among other things that what I had heard about the life of shepherds could not be true” (201), he describes a single train of thought as being a recurrent activity, the dog in his mind repeatedly examining the evidence, pondering the implications, and coming to an inevitable conclusion time after time. It is in the midst of these descriptions of repeating frequency that Berganza shifts function as a narrator, moving from the narrative mood of describing events into the ideological function of interpreting them. In these digressions, he holds forth on the nature of different types of masters, not dissimilar to the witty observations of “The Glass Graduate.” Each adventure yields not just a story illustrating the social class and profession that Berganza served, but also the summation of the dog’s measured and repeated reflections regarding those professions as an outsider. These reflections are punctuated by an ellipsis to speed the narrative to the concluding episode, through which Berganza escapes or leaves the situation for whatever logical reason, returning again to singulative frequency.

The Cañizares episode inverts the sequence of singulative-repeating-singulative. The witch starts by describing how Camacha “would freeze the clouds when she wanted to, and blot out the face of the sun with them; and when she felt like it, she would make the stormiest sky clear” (229), employing the repeating frequency in narrative time in describing the witches’ respective powers and capabilities. It is only at Montiela’s pregnancy that the story switches into the singulative, and remains in that mode only through the recounting of the prophecy, and briefly after, in recounting Montiela’s death. Otherwise, the narrative returns to the repeating mode in describing the nature of the devil, the effects of the ointment, the authorship of sin, and Cañizares’ journey to redemption. This inversion further sets apart the Cañizares episode as a central pivot to the entire story at both structural and thematic levels.

In total, these narrative effects set “The Dogs’ Colloquy” and “The Deceitful Marriage” apart from other stories in the collection. The other stories in the collection are narrated by and feature humans speaking about human activities and are largely contained within self-contained metadiagetic levels.  Even “The Little Gypsy Girl,” which recounts the title character’s story of birth for the end of the work, proceeds in a traditional temporal sequence from start to finish, as with the other stories in the collection. It is the accumulation of narrative complexity that sets “The Dogs’ Colloquy” apart, and the talking dogs underscore and amplify this complexity.

 However, when it comes to explaining the question of why dogs were included in the story, Aylward makes a general statement that places dogs under the category of the mere absurd:

If there is some artistic purpose behind Cervantes’s elaborate plan to fuse the Casamiento with the Coloquio, it is to demonstrate that a skillful author—as Campuzano in this case certainly is—will be able to create an interesting and plausible story out of virtually any subject-matter, even something as absurd as a conversation between two dogs. [38]

Yet Cervantes was not a fabulist, and only sparingly introduced into his stories those elements that could not be explained through rational means. Otis H. Green writes that “Cervantes makes principal use, not of the supernatural, but of the surprising and the apparently inexplicable,” [39] and notes just two exceptions: Don Quixote’s “oneiric” adventure in the Cave of Montesinos, and the talking dogs of “The Dogs’ Colloquy.” Similarly, Peter N. Dunn categorizes the talking dogs as “Campuzano’s dreamwork, a dog’s eye view of a world riddled with deceit and brutality.” [40]

Based on Cervantes’ stated objective for Exemplary Stories, we might look at the recreational aspect to uncover the function of the dogs. In the “billiard table” of the work, the dogs may represent billiard balls that can find a home in any pocket, touch any other ball, and otherwise have the run of the table, as did Berganza throughout the societal levels of the city. Unlike other animals, dogs can be welcomed into homes in different social strata, as field workers, guards, or companions. No other animal, whether octopus, bird, giraffe, or cat, has as extensive a range of social acceptance in the human family as does the dog.

Illustrating this status, the dog is a recurring motif throughout Exemplary Stories. In “The Little Gypsy Girl,” two dogs in the gypsy camp grab the poet by the leg and wound him (59); in “Riconete and Cortadillo,” the ringleader of the thieves’ guild Monipodio carries with him “a sword with the ‘little-dog’ mark (98); “The Glass Graduate” describes poets as “modern young puppies bark[ing] at the hoary old mastiffs” (133); and “The Jealous Extremaduran” sequesters his young bride in a house with no male animals, and “nor was the bark of a dog ever heard there; they were all of the female sex” (153). These common elements, evocations and thematic linkages between “The Dogs’ Colloquy” and other stories contribute to the stylistic unity of the collection, while also forming an impression that the dogs are and have been an integral part of society as described in the novels.

Permitting the dogs to speak in a human voice afforded Cervantes with comic and satirical potential stemming from the poetic representation of canine thought. Cervantes imbues the dogs with a writer’s sensibility, such that they draw upon metaphors based on their own experiences as animals, much as a writer draws upon experiences with other humans. A dog, being an animal, would be more likely to compare a human to other animals than to characterize humans in terms of other humans, as humans tend to do. Accordingly, in Berganza’s story here are instances of humans acting like animals, such as the shepherds pretending to be wolves (204); humans treating others like animals, such as the constable using women “as a net or hook to make their catches for them” (217); humans with animal-like attributes, such as Cañizares’ "stomach which was like a sheepskin" and her "udders of wrinkled, dried up cows" (236); and humans described as animals, such as the Moors said to be “treasure-chest, moth, magpie and weasel” where money is concerned (242). Berganza himself is transformed by the drummer into a horse (226), an animal which Berganza notes at the beginning of the story has a lesser reputation for understanding than either dog or elephant (195-196). Even the narrative is given a zoomorphic representation through Scipio’s plea that Berganza tell the story “quickly, without adding tails to it, and making it look like an octopus” (212). Paul Carranza explains this phenomenon of interspecies identity confusion in reference to the Aesopic tradition, observing that “[t]he novella is replete with humans who act as if they were animals,” representing “transgressions against identity.” [41]

Cervantes’ dogs form an integral part of the fabric of Exemplary Stories, and as such, they appear to be more than simply an absurdity designed to test the limits of what an able storyteller can convince a reader to be true. Cervantes was experimenting with novelistic innovations based on generic forms, and in doing so, not only synthesized the picaresque with the colloquy and the exemplary tale, but also incorporated the fable from antiquity. Yet these are not dogs out of folklore acting in the way that dogs are supposed to act, as do lions or mice in such tales. Instead, they think like humans, speak like humans, and live very human lives. Cervantes imparted a sense of psychological realism into the dogs’ manner of expression, making them human enough to be useful components of an exemplary tale, while remaining suitable subjects for readers’ recreation.





[24] Genette 30.

[25] Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Exemplary Stories, trans. C.A. Jones (London: Penguin Books, 1972) 230. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the chapter.

[26] Cervantes, The Portable Cervantes, trans. Samuel Putman (New York: Penguin, 1976) 707.

[27] The Portable Cervantes 707.

[28] Alban K. Forcione, Cervantes and the Mystery of Lawlessness: A Study of El Casamiento Engañoso y El Coloquio de los Perros (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984) 13.

[29] Forcione 179.

[30] L.A. Murillo, “Cervantes’ Coloquio de los Perros, a Novel-Dialogue,” Modern Philology 58.3 (Feb., 1961): 175.

[31] Murillo 178.

[32] Murillo 175.

[33] Edward Aylward, “The Peculiar Arrangement of El Casamiento engañoso and El coloquio de los perros,A Companion to Cervantes’s Novelas Ejemplares, ed. Stephen F. Boyd (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Tamesis, 2005) 237.

[34] Aylward 256.

[35] Peter N. Dunn, “Shaping Experience: Narrative Strategies in Cervantes,” MLN 109.2 (Mar., 1994): 199.

[36] Nelles 193.

[37] Steven Hutchinson, "Counterfeit Chains of Discourse: A Comparison of Citation in Cervantes' Casamiento / Coloquio and in Islamic Hadith," Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 8.2 (1981): 145.

[38] Aylward 258.

[39] Otis H. Green, “Scholarship in the Renaissance: Reports presented at the Annual Meeting, January 26, 1963,” Renaissance News 16.3 (Autumn, 1963): 249.

[40] Peter N. Dunn, “The Play of Desire: El amante liberal and El casamiento engañoso y El coloquio de los perros,Companion to Cervantes’s Novelas Ejemplares (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Tamesis, 2005) 98.

[41] Paul Carranza, "Cipión, Berganza, and the Aesopic Tradition," Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 23.1 (2003): 154.