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Read This Book: Don Quixote

So, I finished Don Quixote, Part II.

I read Part I back in July, and though my plan was to continue, I chose to set the book aside for several months. One reason for doing this was because I wanted to get a small taste of the original experience (the other reason was I wanted a breather). Cervantes published the first part ten years prior to the second, and by the time the second part was published, Don Quixote was known throughout most of Europe and the New World. So to its first readers, it was a return to some well-known and well-loved characters.

The first part literally shocked me. I was expecting a fairly bland road-trip story. Quixote and Panza wandering from town to town, having conversations with random individuals, exposing various aspects of the culture of Spain circa 1600. I thought I might get some insight into modern Spain, and in the meantime scratch a book off of the list of “Books One Must Read While Still Breathing In Order to Feel Like One Has Read the Books One Must.”

Instead, I found a hilarious, deeply amusing, gracious and pointed excavation of Spanish culture. And of art. And of religious belief. And of political authority. And of love. And of humanity. I think that’s a fair way to say it—Cervantes unwraps Spain, but his wisdom runs deeper than a simple cultural evaluation. He also demonstrates a keen understanding of and love for humanity.

Side note: This love for people is critical. A lot of very good literature, music, painting, sculpture is poisoned by a cynical hatred for humanity. Folks churn out misanthropic art disguised as biting wit or “savage commentary on larger social issues.” An evident love for people is a big part of why I think Michael Chabon is a much better author than, say, Jonathan Franzen. More on that when I write about Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

So, as Quixote & Panza wander in search of quests suitable for Quixote’s attention—Quixote seeking to bring honor to his imaginary beloved, and Panza holding out hope for riches and power—they encounter a wide cast of characters. Some are brokenhearted lovers. Some are scoundrels in (or out) of chains. Some are violent herdsman or innkeepers. Some are noblemen and women with a taste for vicious mockery. They meet Quixote or Quixote meets them. They realize that he is insane, and in responding to his insanity, they reveal their own character for good or for ill. In the end, Quixote suffers an unexpected loss, returns home, regains his sanity, and dies.

A few thoughts:

The structure of the novel is exceedingly intricate. At one point, we are reading the English translation of a Spanish translation of an Arabic record of a Spanish cleric’s public reading of a novel. In spite of this, it’s incredibly easy to read and to follow the action. The complexity serves rather than obscures. Cervantes’ use of the various layers adds texture and realism; in fact, large sections of this novel reminded me of an afternoon with a large group of Spaniards, eating and laughing and listening as each tells a story.

The novel is also fairly modern. Part II plays on the assumption that many of the characters have read or are familiar with Part I. It’s a smart, hilarious device. Cervantes spent much of of Part I describing the reaction of those just discovering Quixote’s insanity. In Part II, he then explores the reactions of those already aware and ready to have some fun. Additionally, this literary device allows Cervantes to skewer the unknown author of a spurious Part II, which had been published a year before his own. Cervantes frequently allows Quixote and others to criticize the artlessness and poor quality of the fake sequel.

And Don Quixote is, in my opinion, an excellent picture of Spain. Many characters throughout the book find their modern-day manifestations in our neighbors or local shopkeepers. Many cultural values remain culturally valued. For instance, it is not uncommon for characters unknown to one another to offer the same sort of unsolicited, personal (invasive?) advice that we receive from day to day.

At a few points, Cervantes mentions some Spanish pueblo or another, and I found that many of them still exist, four hundred years later, and still remain small villages. For example, El Toboso, the home of Quixote’s imaginary beloved, has a little over 2,000 residents and continues to plod along as it always has. Or Puerto Lápice, with its 1,000 residents. I don’t know why, but this blows my mind.

I mentioned to a few Spanish friends that I was reading Don Quixote, and that it was helping me to understand and to love Spain. Some of them said, “Fantastic! It’s a great book!” Others said, “It’s a terrible book, and it paints a bad picture of Spain and of Spaniards.” Amusingly, this past week, the second group also referred to Spain as a nation full of Quixotes. And it is. But it’s also full of Sancho Panzas.

A few quotes:

“For I want you to know, Señor Knight, that in these small hamlets people talk and gossip about everything, and you can be sure, as I am, that a priest must be better than good if his parishioners have to speak well of him, especially in a village.”

“There came into view the shepherdess Marcela, whose beauty far surpassed her fame for beauty.”

“That’s the way,” said Sancho, “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”

“I can’t believe it!” said the barber. “You, too, Sancho? In the same guild as your master? By God, you’ve taken in so much of his lunacy and knighthood, it looks like you’ll be keeping him company in the cage and be as enchanted as he is! It was an unlucky day for you when he made you pregnant with his promises, an evil hour when you got that ínsula you want so much into your head.”

“I’m not pregnant by anybody,” responded Sancho, “and I’m not a man who’d let himself get pregnant even by the king.”

“Each of us is as God made him, and often much worse.”

“I tell you, Sancho, with your natural wit and intelligence, you could mount a pulpit and go around preaching some very nice things.”

“Being a good preacher means living a good life,” responded Sancho, “and I don’t know any other theologies.”

“If it is good, faithful, and true, it will have centuries of life, but if it is bad, the road will not be long between its birth and its grave.”

So there you have it. Don Quixote. I think everyone should read this book. If you have the option, Grossman’s translation was very smooth.

Happy Trails,
Dan J.

Published inBook Reviews

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