Sunday, 10 August 2014

Once I wrote a page about what would happen if Don Quixote killed a man: Jorge Luis Borges on Don Quixote

We’re back for another episode of Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges talking about literary stuff. Recently I read Don Quixote so I thought I’d soak up a bit of what Borges wrote about this great novel. He’s written essays about it and, I find out via Ferrari, even wrote poems about Miguel de Cervantes; Borges’ poetry is my Achilles’ heel. Strangely I was under the impression that he had included the novel in the Personal Library, but it’s not there.

As always, Ferrari suggests the theme. He remembers Borges that once, during a conference in an American college, he said that Alonso Quijano was his best friend (and not Adolfo Bioy Casares?). “I think Unamuno said that Don Quixote is now more real than Cervantes. Well, he is by the fact that we imagine Alonso Quijano directly and we imagine Cervantes through biographies, or outward news…” This is typical Borges, considering the books more real than the physical world…

Ferrari’s question allows Borges to digress on his lifelong fascination with this Spanish novel. One of the first things that struck him, when he first read it, was the protagonist’s fast progression into madness. “Yes, what called my attention, when I was still a boy, was it saying that he became mad without them showing the stages of madness. I thought it was possible to write a short-story – only such a short-story would be somewhat imprudent, no? – a short-story that showed the stages of madness: that showed how, for Alonso Quijano the quotidian world, that place in the dusty La Mancha region, went about becoming unreal and the world of the Matter of Britain more real. But that’s alright, we accept it; and we enter his world right in the first chapter. And maybe… maybe what matters is that a writer presents us with amenable people, and maybe that’s not so hard, because the reader tends to identify himself with the first character mentioned. That is, if we read Crime and Punishment, for instance, we identify from the start with Raskolnikov for he’s the first character we know. And that helps us be his friend, for on reading that we’re him; because reading a book is being the successive different characters of the book. Well, I mean, in the case of the novel, if that novel is any good.”

Ferrari goes on to say that the act of reading comports with identifying oneself with the author. “Yes, in a sense it’s also being the author, all of that; a series of metamorphoses, of changes, which are not painful, which are pleasant. Why, that idea by Unamuno that Don Quixote was an exemplary character seems erroneous to me because he most certainly is not; he’s more of a choleric and arbitrary lord. But since we know he’s harmless… Once I wrote a page about what would happen if Don Quixote killed a man. But that worry of mine was absurd, since you understand from the start that he can’t kill anyone, that he has to be a sympathetic character. And the writer never exposes him to that danger. And then I thought about the possible consequences of that impossible act for Don Quixote, I though what could happen, and I don’t know what possibilities I suggested. But the fact is we feel that Alonso Quijano is a friend.”

When asked about Sancho Panza, he explains that he doesn’t feel the same. “I feel he’s more of an impertinent. Since boyhood that I also think that they talked too much: I imagine it’s more natural for them to have long stretches riding together in silence. But since the reader expected the delicious dialogues, Cervantes couldn’t afford that luxury. When I read Martín Fierro I thought the same thing, I thought it was very odd that Cruz told right away his whole story to Fierro: I thought it was more natural to tell him little by little.”

Their conversation leads them to discuss the tradition of chivalric romances, how Ludovico Ariosto influenced Cervantes via Orlando Furioso and how both drank from the British, French and Roman sources of legends and myths. “Both felt, shall we say, the flavour of those three “matters:” Britain, France and Rome. And at the same time they realized it was all a bit ridiculous, a bit extravagant.” And he continues, “right in the first canto of Orlando Furioso, when he talks about Charlemagne, it’s ridiculed a bit. But at the same time it was precious to Ariosto, who understood that that was all unreal; and maybe that’s what he liked so much about it. In Cervantes that’s even stronger.”

Ferrari also mentions the similarities between Borges and Alonso Quijano, both inhabitants of a library, although Borges disagrees. “I think I wrote in a sonnet that I, unlike Alonso Quijano, had never left my library. Because even though I’ve travelled all over the world, I don’t know if indeed I’ve left the first books I read.” Ferrari says he remained loyal to the “initial library” in his father’s house. “Yes, and besides that, since I’m myopic my first memories are not, shall we say, of the neighbourhood of Palermo, not even my parents’ expensive furniture, but rather books, illustrations, maps, well, the book spines, and why not the hard covers? That is, my first recollections are those, are really recollections more of books than of people.” I think all book lovers can relate a bit to this.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.


  1. I just read another piece on Borges in which the writer, a former student of his, revealed that Borges talked about literary characters as if they were real. He really identified with them in other words! Although I suspect "Georgie" was a little rough on Sancho Panza, how funny to hear the quote about Alonso Quijano being Borges' best friend.

    1. Richard, I'd find it a bit sad, Borges' best friend being a fictional character, if I didn't understand him so well...