I could have let Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, with its 900 pages, remain my Big Book of the year. But chance and occasion found me reading Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote during the month of May. According to my archives, my desire to tackle this famous novel dates back to 2009 when I read Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. The first essay in the book is called “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes,” and for the way it has shaped my view of the novelistic genre ever since, it may be the most important literary essay of my life. In it, besides persuasively arguing for the ineluctable importance of irony and humour in the history of the novel, the Czech writer compiled a list of seminal novels in the genre’s development, and I’ve made it a personal project to read them all. The first item on his list was obviously Don Quixote, the first modern novel and inspiration for countless writers since the 17th century. According to my edition’s introduction, the novel was a quick success, with six editions just in the first year. But although popular, Cervantes’ literary peers, especially the poets, sneered at him and at his prosaic book. Lope da Vega, his rival, went so far as to claim that only simpletons could enjoy his masterpiece. Nowadays, however, the novel is a robust classic and universally known, even by those who have not read it.
I think we all know the gist of the novel. It starts with a country gentleman from la Mancha. “They will have it his surname was Quixada or Quesada (for here there is some difference of opinion among the authors who write on the subject), although from reasonable conjectures it seems plain that he was called Quexana. This, however, is of but little importance to our tale; it will be enough not to stray a hair's breadth from the truth in the telling of it.” (By the way, I’m using John Ormsby’s translation.) Indeed it matters not at all because the nobleman will spend most of the novel under a different name. We know he reads too many cavalry romances, a popular genre at the time, which leave him deranged and believing he’s an actual knight. “You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get. But of all there were none he liked so well as those of the famous Feliciano de Silva's composition, for their lucidity of style and complicated conceits were as pearls in his sight, particularly when in his reading he came upon courtships and cartels, where he often found passages like "the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your beauty;" or again, "the high heavens, that of your divinity divinely fortify you with the stars, render you deserving of the desert your greatness deserves." Over conceits of this sort the poor gentleman lost his wits, and used to lie awake striving to understand them and worm the meaning out of them; what Aristotle himself could not have made out or extracted had he come to life again for that special purpose.” We also know he unearths the grimy weapons of his great-grandfathers, dons a mended armour, mounts his horse, Rocinante, declares his love for a peasant girl from the village of El Toboso whom he transforms into the graceful Dulcinea, and in her name sallies forth, now rechristened Dom Quixote, to right wrong and punish injustice. Along the way a gullible, foolish farmer called Sancho Panza, who rides a donkey, a steed unknown in the annals of knight wandering, becomes his squire, hoping to receive for his services a county to rule so that he can rise above his station. In their adventures they meet many people, get involved in many situations and find themselves always at the receiving end of considerable violence. In spite of these travails, the Don rides indestructible, until the day he changes genre, and then he dies. As for the novel, from cover to cover, it is packed with ridiculous, comic, irreverent and ironic situations and episodes that make this a joyful read.
For me, however, after the pleasures of the plot are exhausted, what is interesting is watching the way this novel transforms into something very strange and different. The novel originally had a simple ambition, I think, wishing to be nothing more than a satire on the chivalric genre that was so popular at the time. No romance takes as many beatings as Amadis de Gaul, a 14th century best-seller. In spite of the genre’s popularity, however, it was considered a low form of entertainment. We can get an idea of what educated people thought of it from the conversation between the curate and the barber while they’re selecting books from the Don’s library to burn. Above all they frowned upon the lack of realism and the foolishness of the actions. “"God bless me!" said the curate with a shout, "'Tirante el Blanco' here! Hand it over, gossip, for in it I reckon I have found a treasury of enjoyment and a mine of recreation. Here is Don Kyrieleison of Montalvan, a valiant knight, and his brother Thomas of Montalvan, and the knight Fonseca, with the battle the bold Tirante fought with the mastiff, and the witticisms of the damsel Placerdemivida, and the loves and wiles of the widow Reposada, and the empress in love with the squire Hipolito—in truth, gossip, by right of its style it is the best book in the world. Here knights eat and sleep, and die in their beds, and make their wills before dying, and a great deal more of which there is nothing in all the other books. Nevertheless, I say he who wrote it, for deliberately composing such fooleries, deserves to be sent to the galleys for life. Take it home with you and read it, and you will see that what I have said is true."” In the spirit of the self-awareness the novel celebrates, Cervantes inserts his own book La Galatea in the list of books the curate and the barber save from the flames. There are more complaints about cavalry romances in the novel: “Plots in fiction should be wedded to the understanding of the reader, and be constructed in such a way that, reconciling impossibilities, smoothing over difficulties, keeping the mind on the alert, they may surprise, interest, divert, and entertain, so that wonder and delight joined may keep pace one with the other; all which he will fail to effect who shuns verisimilitude and truth to nature, wherein lies the perfection of writing. I have never yet seen any book of chivalry that puts together a connected plot complete in all its numbers, so that the middle agrees with the beginning, and the end with the beginning and middle; on the contrary, they construct them with such a multitude of members that it seems as though they meant to produce a chimera or monster rather than a well-proportioned figure. And besides all this they are harsh in their style, incredible in their achievements, licentious in their amours, uncouth in their courtly speeches, prolix in their battles, silly in their arguments, absurd in their travels, and, in short, wanting in everything like intelligent art; for which reason they deserve to be banished from the Christian commonwealth as a worthless breed."
For a good deal, Cervantes’ aim is to disparage these conventions. According to Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, an expert on Cervantes, the author originally didn’t plan to extend the novel beyond the first six chapters, culminating with the books’ hecatomb. “The reader of these scarce pages has seen enough to convince himself that the reading of Palmerin of England, for instance, is as dangerous as the plague; in fact, that it’s a true plague for the spirit. The reader has witnessed the quick development – imaginary, of course – of a process of madness provoked by the abovementioned readings, and its future and regrettable consequences. He closes the book and, probably, reaches out for Don Belianis of Greece, to see if its reading is in fact as dangerous as claimed. And he verifies it’s not.” I’m not convinced by this; I’m also not convinced that Sancho Panza was an “unforeseen encounter” for the author, a character “he hadn’t planned for,” and who “had entered the novel willing to disorganize it.” Now there’s no doubt that Sancho’s presence improves the novel with his naïve bantering, but the first chapters are essential to establish the novel’s world, to lay out the rules. We see the Don riding into the world, transfiguring it into his reality: an inn becomes a castle, prostitutes preside over his knighting, a pot becomes a crown on his head. Interpreted as mad by everyone he encounters and getting into trouble for applying his chivalric logic to everything, these chapters are a microcosm of the novel. However, the farce prevails after the Don hires Sancho as his squire, and the comedy continues to come from the confrontation between the knight’s delusions and the order of the world.
What I liked about the novel is how heterogeneous it is. Although the Don tries to be a knight, the physical world is always pulling him away from his idealism. It’s no wonder that the novel abounds with scatological and physiological references: eating, sleeping, pissing, shitting, burping, farting. And both companions endure tremendous violence: broken bones, and cracked teeth, falls from horses, punches, beatings with sticks, trampling from oxen. So although this is tongue-in-cheek farce, we can also argue that literary realism begins here. At the same time, it has a meta-fictional streak running through it. For all this violence inflicted upon this old, feeble madman, he’s indestructible so far as plays by the rules of the chivalric genre.
The two companions have a simple dynamic. At heart Don Quixote is an optimist: "Bear in mind, Sancho, that one man is no more than another, unless he does more than another; all these tempests that fall upon us are signs that fair weather is coming shortly, and that things will go well with us, for it is impossible for good or evil to last for ever; and hence it follows that the evil having lasted long, the good must be now nigh at hand; so thou must not distress thyself at the misfortunes which happen to me, since thou hast no share in them." This is him rationalizing why his adventures never pan out the way they do in the romances. It’s just a matter of waiting. Nothing gets him down. Sancho is also constantly worried about the comely aspects of life: provisions, money and his county to rule. But the Don is also prone to outbursts of anger and to raise his sword at anyone who displeases him, although he never kills anyone and quickly forgets his rage. And he’s quite conceited: “"I know who I am," replied Don Quixote, "and I know that I may be not only those I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and even all the Nine Worthies, since my achievements surpass all that they have done all together and each of them on his own account."” Sancho, meanwhile, although an ass, is full of folk wisdom, bombarding the Don with barrages of proverbs and sayings, some useful and adequate, others confusing and pointless, and proves his worth and goodness when he’s given a county, Barataria, to rule (a name derived from barato, cheap or trashy).
Don Quixote came out in two volumes. The first volume came out in 1605, the second one in 1615. The first part of the novel is mostly about Don Quixote transforming reality into myths; the famous windmills turned into giants and so forth. It’s the weakest part. There are problems I don’t see as problems: the novel’s absolute lack of interiority, for instance, the fact most characters speak most of the time as if they were on a stage, questions of style and form that may seem crude and primitive to modern readers. Even worse, for those who think James Wood is a god, this novel may not sit well with you. “The translator of this history, when he comes to write this fifth chapter, says that he considers it apocryphal, because in it Sancho Panza speaks in a style unlike that which might have been expected from his limited intelligence, and says things so subtle that he does not think it possible he could have conceived them; however, desirous of doing what his task imposed upon him, he was unwilling to leave it untranslated, and therefore he went on to say.” This is Cervantes breaking James Wood’s idiotic indirect free style centuries before it was formulated by him. I can live with these problems of craft. Other problems, well, are problematic. Cervantes clearly had not yet comprehended the potential of his two bumbling characters, and so, in the tradition of Boccaccio’s Il Decameron, he infuses the novel with excursions and parallel stories about other characters, usually amorous in nature, and more serious, as if the author were a bit embarrassed by the total nonsense of the premise and wished to redeem himself. It was a chore to get through the stories of Grisóstomo and Marcela, Cardenio and Dorotea, and whatnot, sapping the novel of its energy. It must be said the novel cools down to a glacier whenever Don Quixote and Sancho are absent. At least this way I learned where Jan Potocki lifted the structure of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa from.
The novel really begins to shine in the second volume. Its publication, by the way, had a bizarre turn of events. Before the official version came out, someone called Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, a pseudonym, published his own version in 1614. No one knows who this person was and what his beef with Cervantes was. My introduction tells me that a theory identifies him as one Gerónimo de Passamonte, Cervantes’ companion in war, and who was derided by the author in the first part of the novel as Ginés de Pasamonte, the crafty galley slave the Don frees. Passamonte wrote his own autobiography in 1604 (although it was only published in 1922), Vida y Trabajos de Gerónimo de Passamonte, and Cervantes may have known it. Passamonte got even with his unofficial sequel. Cervantes, in turn, struck back turning him into Master Pedro in the second part, a charlatan whose monkey can know a person’s past. Cervantes even imagines a scene where it’s being destroyed by devils in Hell: “To one of them, a brand-new, well-bound one, they gave such a stroke that they knocked the guts out of it and scattered the leaves about. 'Look what book that is,' said one devil to another, and the other replied, 'It is the "Second Part of the History of Don Quixote of La Mancha," not by Cide Hamete, the original author, but by an Aragonese who by his own account is of Tordesillas.' 'Out of this with it,' said the first, 'and into the depths of hell with it out of my sight.' 'Is it so bad?' said the other. 'So bad is it,' said the first, 'that if I had set myself deliberately to make a worse, I could not have done it.' They then went on with their game, knocking other books about; and I, having heard them mention the name of Don Quixote whom I love and adore so, took care to retain this vision in my memory."” This is how you do a literary feud. To Passamonte’s credit, it is argued that he provided Cervantes with the impetus to finally write the promised second part he hinted at the end of the first part.
And it’s in the second part that things get crazy; suddenly Cervantes is writing meta-fiction. Here, Don Quixote and Sancho meet characters who know who they are, for they’ve have read part one. They also meet characters who have met the counterfeit versions. They even learn that there are two fraudulent versions of them in Saragossa, which prompts the Don to change his destination. I’m sad, I must say, for I kept waiting for a ridiculous scene where both pairs would meet each other, that would have been a hoot! In the first part we already knew the story was the translation of a story written by one Cide Hamete Benengeli, so it was already full of levels. The second part is about the Don and Sancho learning they’re famous – and Cervantes acknowledges Pancho is even more famous than the Don – and that their stories have been narrated in a popular novel, and wherever they go everyone recognizes them and dotes on them, honoured to have their company. It’s a novel aware of its own success.
Cervantes also changes the nature of the Don’s folly. No longer does he look at inns and see castles. Here he sees reality as it is, but is constantly misreading it, because everyone conspires against him. In one episode Sancho shows him a peasant girl saying she’s Dulcinea, but he sees her as a peasant girl, so Sancho convinces him it’s an evil spell cast by wizards. Don Quixote believes it because his mind is apophenic, it searches for order everywhere, as we already know from the first part: "Look here, Sancho," said Don Quixote, "by him thou didst swear by just now I swear thou hast the most limited understanding that any squire in the world has or ever had. Is it possible that all this time thou hast been going about with me thou hast never found out that all things belonging to knights-errant seem to be illusions and nonsense and ravings, and to go always by contraries? And not because it really is so, but because there is always a swarm of enchanters in attendance upon us that change and alter everything with us, and turn things as they please, and according as they are disposed to aid or destroy us; thus what seems to thee a barber's basin seems to me Mambrino's helmet, and to another it will seem something else; and rare foresight it was in the sage who is on my side to make what is really and truly Mambrine's helmet seem a basin to everybody, for, being held in such estimation as it is, all the world would pursue me to rob me of it; but when they see it is only a barber's basin they do not take the trouble to obtain it; as was plainly shown by him who tried to break it, and left it on the ground without taking it, for, by my faith, had he known it he would never have left it behind. Keep it safe, my friend, for just now I have no need of it; indeed, I shall have to take off all this armour and remain as naked as I was born, if I have a mind to follow Roland rather than Amadis in my penance." He finds a reason for everything, and his main explanation is always the wizards.” Now that his madness is famous, everyone wants to have some fun at the Don’s expense, which makes it quite sadistic. The bulk of the book is about a Duke and a Duchess who invite them to their castle, only to play lots of cruel, violent jokes full of refined maliciousness. There’s a sense of tedium in the novel, everyone just makes jokes on the Don as if they had nothing better to do with their lives.
Sancho and the Don also become good friends, even if sometimes the squire fools the master. Their friendship blossoms, as we see in the counsels he gives to Sancho when he becomes the ruler of Barataria. At the same time, it shows the Don’s wisdom. Cervantes is always clear that the Don’s madness extends only to his knight errantry, but he’s still capable of complex and subtle reason. In his advices to Sancho we see he’s as astute thinker. "True," said Don Quixote, "and for that reason those who are not of noble origin should take care that the dignity of the office they hold be accompanied by a gentle suavity, which wisely managed will save them from the sneers of malice that no station escapes. Glory in thy humble birth, Sancho, and be not ashamed of saying thou art peasant-born; for when it is seen thou art not ashamed no one will set himself to put thee to the blush; and pride thyself rather upon being one of lowly virtue than a lofty sinner. Countless are they who, born of mean parentage, have risen to the highest dignities, pontifical and imperial, and of the truth of this I could give thee instances enough to weary thee. Remember, Sancho, if thou make virtue thy aim, and take a pride in doing virtuous actions, thou wilt have no cause to envy those who have princely and lordly ones, for blood is an inheritance, but virtue an acquisition, and virtue has in itself alone a worth that blood does not possess. This being so, if perchance anyone of thy kinsfolk should come to see thee when thou art in thine island, thou art not to repel or slight him, but on the contrary to welcome him, entertain him, and make much of him; for in so doing thou wilt be approved of heaven (which is not pleased that any should despise what it hath made), and wilt comply with the laws of well-ordered nature.” The chapters about Barataria are also quite good, comical masterpieces in how they invert the social order, by showing Sancho as a wise, kind and effective governor in his short-live rule.
Another moment of self-awareness concerns the Don’s death. In the end, the Knight of the White Moon (a young man trying to return him to his village) challenges him to a duel. The Don agrees, and loses; he’s made to swear to stop his knight errantry for a year. Shortly afterwards he becomes ill and dies. This is curious. He seems indestructible until then: while he’s in the chivalric genre, he’s stepped on, beaten up, crushed, thrown on the ground, and always bounces back intact like a rubber ball. Then he decides to become a shepherd during his interval, and his health declines and he dies. It’s like a crisis of genre, the first fictional character to be assassinated by a pastoral. It’s not the defeat that kills him, since he had been defeated many times before, and always rationalised them away. It’s the oath he’s forced to take, in accordance to his adherence to the rules. He’s defeated by the rules of the genre he put himself in. In other words, he knows the rules of the genre too well. He lived by the rules of knights and eventually they cast him out of the genre. The rules he existed for become the negation of his own existence.
I finished the novel entertained, pleased and instructed. No amateur student of the novel can avoid reading it. At every turn we see its influence extending into our era. The picaresque form would fly over to England and influence Henry Fielding and Tobia Smollet, the novel’s translator, and Lawrence Sterne. There’s a reason why Jan Potocki’s novel takes place in Saragossa and Sierra Morena, places mentioned in this one. Jane Austen clearly lifted her parody of Gothic novels, Northanger Abbey, from here. Flaubert’s Emma Bovary is another character whose reality if perverted by too much reading. Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist owes a lot to Cervantes. And Italo Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount may have started in this paragraph: "It is a balsam," answered Don Quixote, "the receipt of which I have in my memory, with which one need have no fear of death, or dread dying of any wound; and so when I make it and give it to thee thou hast nothing to do when in some battle thou seest they have cut me in half through the middle of the body—as is wont to happen frequently—but neatly and with great nicety, ere the blood congeal, to place that portion of the body which shall have fallen to the ground upon the other half which remains in the saddle, taking care to fit it on evenly and exactly. Then thou shalt give me to drink but two drops of the balsam I have mentioned, and thou shalt see me become sounder than an apple." To say nothing of its importance to the rise of metafiction since the 1960s.
There are strong reasons to call this the greatest novel ever written.
Read for Caravana de Recuerdo’s Spanish Lit Month 2014