This year has been one of long and difficult reads: I’ve been trying to get my hands on as many classics as possible, since – in spite of my love for classic literature – I’ve realized I still have major gaps in this particular field. Also, the fact that Don Quixote is one of those books that everyone claims to have read (but in reality they just got to the windmills part) persuaded me to start and determined me to finish when I felt like it was heading into an inconclusive tangle.
All the subject is in that division
That is, the division of Don Quixote in two volumes, published ten years apart by author Miguel de Cervantes. After the release of the first (and at the time of its creation – only) volume of the novel in 1605, the book had such a huge success that a spurious second part was published by someone under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, most likely an unidentified Aragonese who was an admirer of Lope de Vega, rival of Cervantes. Perceived as an insult by the original author, this publication had the merit of pushing Cervantes into publishing his own, original, second volume. If the first part is a marvelous work of art, the second is enriched by an abundance of stylistic devices that are incredibly modern for their time.
The troubled story of the work itself is reflected into the intricacies of the authentic second volume: I can only imagine how outraged, offended and vindictive Miguel de Cervantes must have felt, having been robbed of what can be defined not only as his artistic creature, but also a vital source of income. And revenge he did take: in one of the book’s most meta scenes, Don Quixote winds up in a shop where the Avellaneda edition is being printed. He grows angry and annoyed and proceeds to pull the story apart, demonstrating that Don Quixote is none other than himself, while the other is nothing but a scandalous fraud. He also manages to give a detailed speech about the issues of publishing autonomously rather than with a publisher, an insight that would belong in a present-day discussion regarding the way Amazon is changing the market rather than a 1600s book print shop. Speaking of being ahead of his time!
Plot and plot devices
Never have I met a single person who was unable to recall, even vaguely, the story of Don Quixote: a middle aged hidalgo reads a bunch of chivalry novels, goes mad and starts doing crazy things like attacking windmills thinking they’re giants, aided by his simple minded squire Sancho Panza. Two lines to describe more than one thousand pages of delicately interwoven plots, subplots, emotions and characters who are much more profound than expected.
This was one of the biggest surprises, in fact: one delves into the book with the preconceived idea that it’s going to be a fun story about two lunatics, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth! The supposed madness of Don Quixote is something that all characters in the book struggle with, and the reader doesn’t have any advantage: at no point is there an insight into Don Quixote’s thought process, and you’re left with a constant sensation of uncertainty regarding his real deal. The only clues we have are the same ones available to the characters themselves: at times he seems incredibly sensible and speaks with modesty and high intelligence, only to go down the slippery slope of delusion whenever the matter of chivalry is brought into the equation. A 1600s version of the maddening Inception spinning top dilemma.
Even more surprising is the development of Sancho’s character. Far from being the dim-witted simpleton commonly outlined in summaries, he’s actually a vastly knowledgeable individual, with strong wit and solid wisdom. He’s not only the comic relief, but also the voice of reason when the two are in actual danger, acting as the glue between his master’s view of the world and what can be defined as objective reality. His eyes are our eyes in the story, shedding light on the extent of Don Quixote’s deviations by providing us with a relatable point of comparison.
The feminist matter
Although feminism is often regarded as a recent phenomenon, Cervantes manages to write maybe one of its earliest pages in modern literature by repeatedly shattering the concept of courtly love, describing women as smart, resourceful and independent individuals. There are several strong women in the books, but as far as I know, we’d have to wait for the 20th century to even get close to something even remotely similar to Marcela’s monologue at Chrysostom’s funeral, where she stomps on her encoding as “damsel in distress” and cruel, heartless mistress of pastoral tradition. She’s not up for any of that, and she states it quite clearly (emphasis mine):
“If Chrysostom’s impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it? I have, as you know, wealth of my own, and I covet not that of others; my taste is for freedom, and I have no relish for constraint; I neither love nor hate anyone; I do not deceive this one or court that, or trifle with one or play with another.”
I enjoyed this part enormously because there is a great need for strong female characters in today’s entertaining material (eg. books, movies), and finding one in a book written 400 years ago is surprisingly refreshing.
Don Quixote and Sancho as living book characters
Because of the success of the first part of the novel, Cervantes sets Don Quixote’s adventures of the second book in a world where he is vastly renown by people from all walks of life. This creates a myriad of possibilities in terms of meta-fictional artifices, enriching the narrative with the awareness of the protagonists of being characters in a story. The two are greeted as superstars wherever they go, and each and every person they encounter tries to figure out what they’re all about: has Don Quixote really gone mad? Does Sancho really only speak in proverbs? Do they truly believe the things they say they believe?
These are a few of the questions that also haunt the reader for hundreds of pages. How can the experience of the world not teach these two that their fantasies are just that… fantasies? How can a sensible, intelligent nobleman sink so deep into madness that he cannot tell apart fact from illusion? How can a sensible, intelligent peasant agree to serve the aforementioned nobleman on the basis of unfounded promises of riches and power? Luckily, we do get satisfaction in the second book: a Duke and Duchess happen on the way of this odd pair, and – with the goal of having a few good laughs – they decide to turn the fantasies into reality. Sancho becomes a governor, as was promised by his master, both of them are waited on hand and foot… it would seem that maybe they weren’t so mad after all. Or were they?
Killing Don Quixote
The second volume published by Cervantes has three main goals: entertain the public, since there was an evident demand for Don Quixote adventures, make the protagonists do radically different things than what they did in the spurious Avellaneda edition (in order to further disprove its credibility), and most importantly, kill Don Quixote. The whole point was that, if he remained alive, there could always be the chance of someone deciding to write some more about him, taking him out of his hiatus and into new adventures.
Cervantes, after thoroughly marking the territory by making it clear who the creator of Don Quixote is, goes on and destroys him. Not only does he send the protagonist back home, he hacks down his very identity by effectively making him sane, thus disintegrating the fabric upon which the story could be woven. Don Quixote is old, exhausted and in his right mind, acknowledging his past madness and harshly disapproving of it. After taking care of his testament and last dispositions, he dies a Christian death. His character is demolished in spirit and body: Cervantes puts him in his grave, and asks all other writers to please leave him there.
The entire work has the taste of 20th century literature, three full centuries ahead of its time. It’s fun and entertaining, which is everything leisurely narrative should be. What strikes most, however, is how fresh and modern it feels, and how it still is such a well known and beloved work, more than four hundred years after it was first published. The adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza continue to tantalize our imagination, ending up as statues, paintings, sketches, movies, comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, illustrations and much, much more.
Cervantes may have managed to protect his legacy by killing Don Quixote, but in doing so, he made him immortal.