Idle reader, you can believe without any oath of mine that I would wish this book, as the child of my brain, to be the most beautiful, the liveliest and the cleverest imaginable. But I have been unable to transgress the order of nature, by which like gives birth to like. And so, what could my sterile and ill-cultivated genius beget but the story of a lean, shrivelled, whimsical child, full of varied fancies that no-one else has ever imagined.
Even by the standards of my tyrannical TBR regime, Miguel de Cervantes' comic epic Don Quixote has been hanging around my living space, unread, for quite some time. Six and half years, in fact. Every so often its winsome gaze* would catch me; each time, I would pick it up, flick through, persuade myself I didn't fancy something quite so dense right now, and put it back.
[*anyone with a substantial stock of unread books can surely attest that a winsome gaze may indeed be wielded by these otherwise papery and rather eyeless beings]
The "too dense" argument is manifest nonsense, given that I've read the likes of Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy in the interim. (And given that Don Quixote eventually proved the speediest and most fun ~800-page read imaginable; there is a lesson here on making unfounded assumptions about books, methinks). Part of the problem, I suspect, was that it never resided on my TBR shelves - its purchase predated them - or else guilt would have driven me to read it much sooner. Finally, I was shamed into a reading during my time at a Spanish course on the outskirts of Madrid last summer. Perhaps it was the fact that I was living in Cervantes' birthplace (Alcala de Henares), in which apparently every other street is named after him, or boasts statues of his heroes; perhaps it was all those road signs in Madrid, stalking me with extracts from the novel every time I turned a corner; perhaps it was the poster outside my classroom. Whichever, the message was clear: enough procrastination, really.
So, returning to Alcala this summer for research, further Spanish classes, and, well, cerveza, the first book into my suitcase had to be the chronicle of the ubiquitous Don.
Leaving one question... what on Earth possessed me to put it off this long?
Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1615) was variously soldier, slave, government official and writer (the latter largely out of financial necessity, it seems, government posts not being terribly forthcoming). He conceived Don Quixote as a skit on the popular ballads and chivalric romances of the day, but it soon took on a life of its own, and became both a vastly entertaining adventure story and a telling window upon Spanish society at the start of the seventeenth century. What is now the first part was first published in 1604; so successful was it that, by the time Cervantes came to publish the second part in 1614, it had already been translated into English and French.
The basic premise of the story is that a certain comfortably-off chap reads one too many tales of chivalry, and convinces himself that he, too, can be a noble knight-errant. Naming himself Don Quixote and employing local labourer Sancho Panza as his squire, he sets out on his trusty steed in search of injustice, honourable adventure, damsels in distress and the like - all the while keeping in mind the image of his (platonic) beloved, the noble and beautiful Dulcinea del Toboso.
The truth, of course, is that Don Quixote is neither physically imposing (Cervantes has considerable fun describing his hero's lanky physique, drooping moustaches, etc.) nor especially bright; that the stories he models his life upon are, to varying degrees, made up; that his trusty steed has a habit of collapsing at the first breath of wind; that Dulcinea is in reality a sturdily-built farm girl who "pitches a bar as well as the strongest lad in the whole village", in Sancho's words, and barely knows he exists; that the people he faithfully attempts to save generally don't want (or need) his help; that no-one he speaks to can understand his high-flown, chivalric language; and that those great big things on the horizon that he's charging towards at full tilt aren't, in fact, giants at all:
"Take care, your worship," said Sancho; "those things over there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails, which are whirled round in the wind and make the millstones turn."
"It is quite clear," replied Don Quixote, "that you are not experienced in this matter of adventures. They are giants, and if you are afraid, go away and say your prayers, whilst I advance and engage them in fierce and unequal battle."
A comedy, then, and a genuinely laugh-out-loud one: satire, slapstick, parody, wordplay, irony... even some explicit toilet humour. But it is also much more than this. Don Quixote may be addled and rather pompous, Cervantes may show up his delusions at every turn - but our Knight of the Sad Countenance grows into a genuinely sympathetic character, a loveable fool whose ideals are made all the more admirable every time their distance from reality is demonstrated. He is a dreamer, first and foremost - and one with such conviction that no setback or sneer can shake him. When his pretensions to knighthood are mocked, he responds:
"I know who I am," replied Don Quixote, "and I know, too, that I am capable of being not only the characters I have named but all the Twelve Peers of France and all the Nine Worthies as well, for my exploits are far greater than all the deeds they have done, all together and each by himself."
Although he generally attributes any misfortune, and most of Sancho's reasonable protests, to hostile sorcerers' tricks, there are occasional hints that Don Quixote realises on some level that things are not quite as he perceives. At one stage, Sancho claims to have visited Dulcinea on his behalf - falsely, of course, since Dulcinea as he thinks of her doesn't exist, but he cannot bring himself to disillusion his master (and has learned from experience that Don Quixote probably wouldn't believe him even if he tried). Don Quixote shows a flash of awareness - and then buries it in characteristic style, consciously or unconsciously unwilling to accept the challenge to his dream:
"But do you know what does astonish me, Sancho? You must have gone and returned through the air. For you have only taken three days travelling to El Toboso and back, and it is a good ninety miles. From which I conclude that the sage necromancer, who is my friend and looks after my affairs - for I certainly have such a friend, or I should not be a true knight errant - I say that this necromancer must have assisted you on your journey without your knowing it. For there are enchanters who have picked up a knight errant asleep in his bed, and next day, he will not know how or why, but he will wake up more than a thousand miles from the place where he went to sleep."
There is a sense that, even if Don Quixote is aware of the fiction behind his ideals, he doesn't care; the ideals mean more to him than the truth ever could. So, too, do the stories - "deliberate lies", to one of his friends, but inspiring and glorious to Don Quixote, valuable in their own right and too compelling simply to be surrendered to the naysayers:
"For to attempt to convince anyone that there were no such persons as Amadis and the other knights errant of whom so many records remain, would be like trying to persude him that the sun does not shine, nor the frost chill, nor earth yield sustenance. [...] And if that is a lie, then it must follow that there existed no Hector, nor Achilles, nor Trojan War, nor Twelve Peers of France, nor King Arthur of England, who is still wandering about the world to this day transformed into a raven..."
Whether there is a tension between Cervantes' parodic aim and his ultimately noble protagonist is debatable; while Don Quixote always remains a figure of fun, the satire, at any rate, finds different targets as the novel progresses. The more the deluded knight-errant earns the reader's sympathy, the more those who seek to manipulate and mock him - from prostitutes and innkeepers to, eventually, a Duke and Duchess - appear in a thoroughly disreputable light. Everyone wants to have a laugh at Don Quixote's expense; but baiting an innocent hardly reflects well upon them. If Don Quixote's adventures reveal one thing, it is how cruel his society can be to outsiders (there is a backdrop here, regularly alluded to, of the contemporary explusion from the country of the moriscos and the conversos - Spaniards with Muslim and Jewish ancestry, seen as a threat by an increasingly insular, fundamentalist and racist society). This cruelty only grows more capricious and wasteful the further one travels up the social ladder.
If the texture of his novel is sometimes weighty in its social comment, Cervantes applies a consistently light touch in the prose and structure of his tale. In case chapter headings like "Chapter XXXV: Of the fierce and monstrous Battle which Don Quixote fought with some Skins of Red Wine" don't alert the reader to his not-entirely-serious intent, the author also drops in a number of barbs at his own expense. In the first part, this is restricted to a critical reference to one of his earlier novels (the Galatea, "it sets out to do something" says one character, "and concludes nothing"; in the second, however, he breaks out the sequel jokes 400 years before Gremlins 2. Made aware that their earlier adventures have been published, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza ponder what might follow:
"Does the author," asked Don Quixote, "by any chance promise a second part?"
"Yes, he does," replied Sampson, "but he says he has not found it, and does not know who has it. And so we are in doubt whether it will come out or not. Indeed, some say that second parts are never any good, and others say that enough has been written about Don Quixote." [...]
"What is the author up to, then?" asked Don Quixote.
"What?" replied Sampson. "As soon as he has found the history which he is taking extraordinary pains to search for, he will give it straight to the Press. For he is keener on the profit he will get from it than for any kind of praise."
He also plays various postmodern games; our heroes discuss continuity errors and typos in the first part, dismiss the author as a talentless hack (and an "ignorant chatterer"), and wonder how this whole omniscient narrator thing works, anyway:
"And when I went to welcome him home he told me that your worship's story is already in print under the title of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. He says that I'm mentioned too [...] and so are matters which happened to us in private. It made me cross myself in wonder, to think how the story-writer could have learned all that."
Nor is this all just self-indulgent cleverness for its own sake. Cervantes soon works the publication of the first part into the narrative fabric of the second, as Don Quixote's resultant fame/infamy brings him new enemies, new mockers, and even ap upstart copycat knight claiming to be the real Don Quixote (a plot strand which doubles as a swipe at a rival author who nicked Cervantes' characters and published a cash-in sequel of his own just before the 'official' release).
Don Quixote: early-modern postmodernism, chivalric parody, social commentary, and a rollicking adventure story about a principled idiot with a heart of gold. Value for money, then! In the words of Sancho, the sometime brains of the piece:
"That my master isn't," replied Sancho. "I mean there's nothing of the rogue in him. His soul is as clean as a pitcher. He can do no harm to anyone, only good to everybody. There's no malice in him. A child might make him believe it's night at noonday. And for that simplicity I love him as dearly as my heart-strings."