Serafín is reunited with his leg

We are living in difficult times. The proof is that humourists are dying in twos and threes. And we all know how resilient humourists are, they can deal with practically anything: hunger, misery, censorship, misunderstandings, and oblivion.

Eduardo Muñoz Bachs, Antonio Edo Mosquera Edgar, Chumy Chúmez, the writer Francisco Chofre, and the poet Chico Sánchez Ferlosio have all left. A little slower, due to his limping leg, the cartoonist Serafín (Serafín Rojo Caamaño, Madrid, 1926), also known as El Marqués de Serafín (The Marquis of Serafín), followed them.

I have promised my colleagues at the Association of Illustrators I would write some words about Serafín, I do not know whether it was a good idea to accept the task. For the last two weeks I have been resisting to write what journalists call a death notice or an obituary. They are ugly terms. Serafín would have liked someone to write about him as if he had been a bullfighter, because as a cartoonist Serafín has always resembled a bullfighter, and someone will come along that knows how. There is no rush: we all know how resilient humourists are, very patient people.

If one day someone writes about his bullfighting life, they could begin by telling the story of the first time Serafín knew, consciously, that he had become an artist. He had been gifted a ticket to see a bullfight and he, being a 1940s teenager, really wanted to go, although not more than being able to bring to the show the girl he liked. He only had that one ticket and it was impossible to buy a second one, so he spent a whole day copying the ticket, in the most faithful way possible, with its colourful bullfighting stamp and and all the details and watermarks. The fake copy, Serafín said, surpassed the original. I cannot remember what happened to that ticket, but I believe it appeared again after some time in a bullfighting museum or in a private art collection. Something happened. I am also unsure of what happened with the girlfriend, whether the young artist managed to gain her favour.

Many things could be said about Serafín, and should be said, everything but settle with a list of his published work, his exhibitions, his feats in the square. We could name names and dates and not say anything at all. I have read on some occasion an autobiographical note by the Marquis and it was just a series of names with few dates. Also —he must have thought— , one’s life is formed by the people with whom one has crossed paths. Is this a modest way of hiding or an arrogant way of showing oneself? It is hard to say. For example, this is how Serafín portrayed himself during his most successful era:

The Marquis of Serafín —to honour the truth— is unbearable.
He has the urge to gloss a type of aristocrats, some bulls from Lagartijo’s times, and a cheap red wine that does not exist anymore, because they add chemicals and water. On the day these three ingredients gather to beat him up, the guy locks himself up in his study in the town of San Sebastían de los Reyes and writes an ‘egobiography’ which, naturally, is censored. So here we are.

The Marquis of Serafín has always had a bit of the Marquis of Bradomín in him. He is possibly his opposite. Valle-Inclán’s alter ego was ugly, Catholic, and sentimental, while Serafín’s was doubly red and radically anti-sentimental, but also ugly. In any case, both had to share, one from his bohemian dandyism and the other from his dandy bohemian-ness, the friendly idea that spiritual beauty is what is truly important. If we wished to work on that, we could find many similarities between Serafín and Valle, and also between other authors we now consider ‘our classics’. As a good autodidact, Serafín paid attention to the most attractive models within his reach, he read what he pleased and rejected ephemeral glories and trends. It could not have been any other way for a rebellious spirit. The humourists who inspired him were called Quevedo, Cervantes, Goya, and Bosch, all those names few of us dare to speak for fear of seeming pretentious and old-fashioned, but who form part of our tradition, which is, by the way, rather interesting and often forgotten.

When he was a young man in Valencia, I am not sure if before or after inviting his girlfriend to the bullfight, Serafín used to go to Burjasot to read books to a blind man. This is not one of Lazarillo de Tormes’ stories, not at all, although it may seem like it. The blind man was Mario Blasco, son of Blasco Ibañez, who was read books by some young boys, works banned by censors and which got to Mario from France through clandestine ways.

Serafín soon learned what censorship was, he loved reading the classics, let his imagination run wild admiring the works of great artists and copied them, and, above all, he learned to observe reality with open eyes. In short, he was able to gather all the conditions for being a great satirical artist; he also had his share of hunger and misery, and the necessary doses of thoughtlessness. Had he had money, or been a practical spirit, things would have probably gone better for him and made a living working in something else. Let us not pity ourselves, let us be selfish and happy that people like him exist, with such a profound vocation for making mistakes.

In a wonderful manual that should have to be reprinted aimed at informing the youth with the humourist profession, Chumy Chúmez questions what humour is and what mineral, animal, or thing a humorist is, and attempts to find a non-ridiculous answer to these badly explained concepts so that no distracted reader is misled and ruins their career when they could have been a dentist or a nuclear engineer. When Chumy wants to provide an example of a humourist, Chumy recounts an anecdote referring to Serafín, although he avoids mentioning his name out of courtesy. 

A few years ago, a well-known humourist had to undergo surgery. They amputated one of his legs which, according to certain legal procedure, had to be buried and not cremated as they used to do before. The humourist did not care if the leg was buried or cremated, but his disdain was frozen stiff when they revealed the cost of the burial, I do not know if it included a funeral or not. The humourist confessed that he did not have enough money to pay for the burial of his poor leg. As you hear it. And the hospital did not want a half-rotten leg that could not even be used for a bad transplant. The situation was both distressing and comical. The humourist, demonstrating his macabre humour, had great displays of creativity, culminating when he drew his own leg running off down a street while shouting happily: ‘Alone at last!’.

If the humourist did not have enough money to bury his leg, which would have fit, bent a little, in a biscuit tin, just imagine what awaited the rest of the body in the future. In the end, an auction had to be held to raise funds and help the humourist. (2)

Here ends the leg episode. But I will copy a fragment of what follows, driven by my typing speed, to serve as a lesson for those aspiring humourists and as a tribute to Chumy’s talents and his incomparable pedagogical skills.

The story is true. So do not be surprised if at a meeting of humorists all you hear them talk about is the retirement that awaits them as freelancers, or the convenience of visiting the Minister of Labour, so he can make available some funds in the General State’s Budget for humourists in misery. Humourists also constantly talk about the huge fortune they could have accumulated if they had worked in the United States of America, where, apparently, all humourists are rich and have wonderful houses along the Pacific coast. And they only make a comic strip a month and not four hundred as we do to be able to pay hair restorer for our poor children’s gums.

It is true that some Spanish humourists are free from that fear of poverty and oblivion, but they are few. Those are who have earned the right to be called ‘the great humorist’, the highest honour these people can achieve in life. (2)

We could say many things about Serafín, perhaps at another time, and evidently we could say many more about the humourist profession. And if we do not, it is for a reason. Perhaps because we now call ‘humorists’ those people who repeat on television sad jokes copied from the bullfighter fireman’s show. This is not the type of humour we are talking about. The bullfighter fireman had more ambition, more risk, and more merit. Our humourists do not sell out for (little) money, do not aspire to be funny, are not there to distract us from our unhappiness, they force us to think. As the poet would say, our humourists are not ours or anyone else’s, not even theirs. In this idiotic world we are building, these people, naturally, make no sense. This is why it seems they are falling off in twos and threes, like flies, because flies —as another great humorist deserter, Augusto Monterroso, knew well— have a lot to do with humour and moods. Like flies, humorists are indestructible. Those who leave are simply taking a break and clearing the way for those who come behind. There is not enough money for everyone. And where do those who leave go? A mystery! Let us listen to Serafín:

Death is not as ugly as it is paint out to be. During the stupid television film that is life, death is an abstract, childish fear. Once you jump over the barrier and you drain the batteries of all the bells you are used to ringing —a task simpler than pulling out a tooth or having your picture taken for an I.D. card— all that matters is a phallic symbol. Simply because nothing happens ‘there’. And if something does, if there is another world, please let me have this one I paint so merry and black-and-white, without the solemnities of Allah, Buddha, or Whomever. Let me have a verbena (a Spanish summer show) in which an old man —Juan Simón?— plays a soleá in the distance.

«Azafata de Caronte
¡Que te busquen en mis cuencas
drogadictas de horizonte!» (3)

Vicente Ferrer
Valencia, July 2003

(1) Humor gráfico español del siglo XX (20th Century Spanish Graphic Humour). RTVE book n. 46, Biblioteca básica Salvat, Salvat publishers – Alianza publishers, Madrid, 1970

(2) Chumy Chúmez: Ser humorista (To Be a Humorist). Professional monographs n. 132, Fundación Universidad-Empresa, Madrid, 1988

(3) Serafín: preface of ¿Por qué ríen las calaveras? (Why Do Skulls Smile?) Pocket book edition n. 484, Barral publishers, Barcelona, 1976

Illustration: Dipsómana, drawing by Serafín included in the dictionary My First 80,000 Words (Media Vaca, 2002).