Ryan Szpiech

title.none: wacks, Framing Iberia (Ryan Szpiech)

identifier.other: baj9928.0809.005 08.09.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ryan Szpiech, Universty of Michigan,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Wacks, David A. Framing Iberia: Maqamat and Frametale Narratives in Medieval Spain. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, vol. 33. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007. Pp. vx, 279. $134.00 (hb) 978-90-0415828-3 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.09.05

Wacks, David A. Framing Iberia: Maqamat and Frametale Narratives in Medieval Spain. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, vol. 33. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007. Pp. vx, 279. $134.00 (hb) 978-90-0415828-3 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Ryan Szpiech
Universty of Michigan

When teaching medieval frame tales, stories-within-stories often told by characters within the text, I tell my undergraduate students that such narratives may have been one of the inspirations for the music of the Grateful Dead. After all, I say, Jerry Garcia publicly credited the 1965 film The Saragossa Manuscript, based on the nineteenth-century frame-tale novel Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse by Polish nobleman Jan Potocki, as one of his favorite films and an inspiration to his artistic style. (Garcia, in fact, put up money to restore the film in the 1990s, just before his death.) The novel purports to be a manuscript found in 1809 that tells the tale of Alphonse van Worden, a Walloon officer who, while traveling to his regiment in Spain in 1739, crosses paths with a host of characters from Spain's mythic past (Muslims, gypsies, cabbalists, thieves, etc.) who tell him a series of sixty-six interconnected frame tales. Potocki, I tell them, with the hyperbole befitting a tall tale, helped rewrite the frame-tale structure of the Thousand and One Nights, Canterbury Tales, Conde Lucanor and the Decameron for the nineteenth century, and Jerry Garcia, through his protean improvisation and labyrinthine performances, passed it on, in his way, to the twentieth. With this embellished introduction, I have found, students will at least do the reading for the next few classes.

Later in the semester, however, when they set off to do their research papers, I then warn them that as influential as the frame-tale structure has been, there are few critical sources that treat the subject as a fluid and hybrid, cross-cultural tradition that embraces a variety texts from multiple traditions. This lacuna has now been partly filled with the publication of Framing Iberia, a broad study of the frame tale in Iberia that spans Romance, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic traditions. Although much has been written about individual works in the tradition, very few studies treat the frame-tale narrative as a general subject in its own right, and even fewer dare to consider together its multiple manifestations when they are not explicitly linked by direct citation and translation. Wacks, in contrast, " reframe [pun intended] the study of these texts as a unified, multilingual tradition" (6). This generic study is among the fist of its kind, even though it can already be inserted into a large bibliography on individual tales from different cultural contexts. This fact alone makes it an important reference for scholars approaching medieval stories from any angle.

Wacks's study consists of six chapters, each focusing on a work or pair of works that represent chronologically various aspects of the "unified, multilingual tradition" of the frame tale. His first chapter focuses on the writing of the converted Jew, Petrus Alfonsi, whose anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim polemic Dialogus contra Iudaeos and collection of frame-tale stories Disciplina Clericalis were both among the most widespread texts of the twelfth century, each boasting over 70 surviving manuscript copies. Wacks reads both works as reflecting "the author's ongoing attempt to reconcile his AndalusĪ Jewish past with his Christian present and future" (19). This reading of the Dialogus and Disciplina together and the presentation of Alfonsi as a "crucial link between the literary practices of al-Andalus and those of Christian Iberia," despite certain issues which I address below, are both necessary and important steps in the analysis of the frame tale across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

The second chapter introduces the crucial concept of "performance" in frame-tale narratives through a focus on the traditional Arabic genre of the maqāma, a collection of related tales, told in rhymed prose (Ar. Sajʿ), in which the narrator and a trickster figure recur in various forms and, in many cases, dupe the public out of money. By considering the representation of performance, in which the telling of a tale or anecdote is contained within the text itself and becomes its wider frame, in both the maqāma and in the frame tale proper, Wacks arrives at the general thesis of his study: "AndalusĪ authors collaborate across several centuries in creating a style of textually encoded performance that is unique to the medieval Iberian frametale, a genre that displays several different currents of literary narrative practice that converge in a common--yet complexly diverse--geographic and cultural experience--one not uniquely Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, nor expressed in any single literary language" (46). He considers the representation of performance in texts such as the eighth-century Arabic version of the collection of animal fables known as KalĪla wa-Dimna (Kalila and Dimna), the twelfth-century Maqāmāt al-LuzūmĪyya of al-SarqusṭĪ, and the Hebrew imitations of the maqāma genre that followed such as the TaḥkemonĪ of Judah al-ḤarĪzĪ and the Sefer ShaʿashūʿĪm (Book of Delights) of Joseph Ibn Zabāra, to which he returns in his later chapters.

In the third chapter, he considers the cultural context of the 1251 Castilian translation of KalĪla as Calila e Digna under the auspices of prince Alfonso, later King Alfonso X of Castile and León. He analyses the translation as "a conscious act of appropriation of a literary genre" (89), a textual version of the post-reconquest phenomenon of "the recontextualizing of Islamic monuments and institutions within a Christian society" (103). Wacks specifically considers how the symbolic role of animals as story characters was shared across cultural boundaries, facilitating the adaptation of the Arabic KalĪla as the Castilian Calila. Through this "common performance of meaning in reception" (128), the translation becomes, at the same time, a mark of Castilian expansion in the thirteenth century. He continues this discussion in chapter four, which treats the "reconquest ideology" within don Juan Manuel's Conde Lucanor. By highlighting the "narrative dissonance" (156) generated by the tension between the didacticism of the text and its inherently ambiguous frame-tale form, Wacks addresses the ideological effects of representing Christian hegemony within literary discourse.

By focusing on the meaning of "textually encoded performance," Wacks works to steer the old discussion of the "influence" of AndalusĪ culture on later Romance traditions onto fruitful new ground where genre and textual form, not direct transmission from text to text, may provide a common thread linking the literary cultures of Iberian history. While this comparative, generic reading has long generated truculent debate in the discussion of the lyric as well as earlier readings in search of "sources" (including the maqāmāt) of the Libro de buen amor, Wacks's broad sweep of examples goes beyond the narrow discussion of transmission and reception to broader questions of imitation, acculturation, transculturation, and cultural translatio. He brings to the discussion much-needed critical reflexivity by drawing eclectically from a theoretical vocabulary of post-colonialism (3, 19, 131) and reader-response theory and hermeneutics (93-4, 108), among other models. Although his recourse to theory is sometimes cursory and at times detracts from his perceptive textual analysis--e.g. his invocation of Bourdieu's notion of "habitus," pp. 132-3, though provocative, brings little to strengthen his argument--the overall effect of injecting the discussion of Iberian cultures with new critical concepts cannot be criticized. On the whole Wacks manages successfully to make use of a variety of new critical tools.

Despite the general avoidance of an influence-transmission model of Iberian cultural history, he does consider a few questions of "direct" contact between frame-tale texts in chapters five and six. In his discussion of Libro de buen amor in the context of the Iberian maqāma, he reevaluates the argument of María Rosa Lida de Malkiel of half-a-century ago (which she based only on translations) that suggested a number of coincidences between Juan Ruiz's text and the work of Ibn Zabāra. Although his own innovative reading, in which he compares strikingly similar passages from the two authors (see especially 189-91), more than justifies returning to these now well-worn questions, no justification is more convincing than the fact that none of the many critics of Lida de Malkiel's hypothesis have bothered to marshal a response on the basis of original Hebrew and Arabic sources (192, n. 84). Wacks himself concedes that there probably never will be a "smoking gun" definitively linking the Libro with Hebrew or Arabic models, but as his two earlier chapters on performativity establish, such proof is not necessary. Although his readings of both the Libro and the fifteenth-century Spill of Jaume Roig discuss how the authors may have been influenced by the model of the Hebrew maqāma, the more compelling sections of these chapters involve the actual close reading and comparison of the texts. Wacks provides some striking textual parallels--another notable example is the triple parallel between descriptions of didactic purpose in the texts of Ruiz, Roig, and the Minḥat Yehudah, soneh ha-nashim (Offering of Yehuda, the Woman Hater) of Judah Ibn Shabbetay, pp. 222-224--and shows repeatedly that the consideration of Iberian genre across linguistic, religious, and cultural divisions can and must move beyond limited models of transmission and influence.

In comparison to the rich analysis in these later chapters, the treatment of Petrus Alfonsi in the first chapter would benefit from more development. This may be partly explained by the fact that this chapter is new and did not form part of the author's previous studies on the frame tale, including his 2004 dissertation on the subject that was the genesis of this book and of the various articles in which Wacks has published a number of his chapters in altered form. What is most problematic about his argument that Alfonsi's "personal experience (as a bicultural, polyglot convert) made possible important innovations...that would forever change the way Christian Europeans would tell stories in literature" (39) is his insistence on a psychologized reading of his authorial identity as "conflicted" (27) on the basis of Alfonsi's presentation of his own conversion in the Dialogus. Discussion of medieval conversion narratives have long been plagued by this sort of literalist reading that does not distinguish between real conversion experiences and carefully constructed textual presentations of them, and such interpretations have been effectively criticized by Jean-Claude Schmitt and Karl Morrison, among others. This reading is out of place in this study, however, because in his later chapters, Wacks does carefully distinguish between authors and their texts and adroitly presents the text as a symbolic matrix in which the representation of performance is critical to the frame-tale's adaptability. His notion of "performance," in fact, could be very fruitfully applied to Alfonsi himself in his "performance" of his conversion in the Dialogus or of the representation of performance in the teacher-student dialogue of the Disciplina, and a reading along these lines would help integrate the first chapter more completely into the argument developed in subsequent chapters. The final chapter on Jaume Roig, on the other hand, does succeed in expanding the core of the book with new and fascinating material, and the addition of a general conclusion or epilogue following this chapter could have provided another opportunity to return to Alfonsi's foundational role.

Despite these quibbles, however, the core of the text in chapters two through seven is a rich and well-connected series of studies on the interpretation of the frame tale in its long, strange trip across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Given the importance of the text as the first book-length study on the Iberian branch of the tradition, Wacks's text will, like the performative renditions of Potocki and Garcia, undoubtedly serve as a catalyst for further development of the subject. By presenting the various points of the frame-tale tradition in Iberia as revolving parts of a literature unified through genre and form, Wacks has succeeded in creating a capacious frame for analyzing this manifold tradition that will prove foundational for twenty-first century scholars and their students, including my own.