Translated by Edith Grossman
Whenever I read a particularly long book and it takes me several months to finish it, it becomes part of me, like an old friend. It’s always at my side, in my hands, by my bed, traveling with me, and I am sorry to say farewell.
It took me two months to read Don Quixote and the spine, especially the bottom of it, is now creased, crinkled and starting to tear a little. It is officially a book now, my book, and not just an object that I keep on my shelf, looking literate.
I was meaning to read this book for several years, now; partially because I found a nice copy at a garage sale and it was sitting on my shelf needing to be read and partially because I’ve recently read some other books about knights and chivalry (Le Morte d’Arthur) and I was curious to read this book, which I understood made fun of knights and chivalry and all those stories that tell of them.
The first half definitely does make fun of books about chivalry. In fact, it is reading these books that has made Don Quixote go mad and believe implicitly in all that these books have to say. He is constantly referring to the books for guidance on how he ought to behave.
Accompanying Don Quixote is Sancho Panza, as his squire, who has been promised a governorship. Sancho believes mostly what Don Quixote says, despite frequent misgivings; but Don Quixote usually dismisses anything that doesn’t make sense to Sancho as the work of malicious enchantment. Sancho has a gift for proverbs and a knack for stating the truth, as well as malapropisms.
The first half of the book was published in 1605 and is a delightful, totally random collection of misadventures, miscellaneous characters telling of their woes, the later fulfillment of those characters woes into happiness as they fortuitously stumble into company with Don Quixote, and even the completely random break in the story so the characters can read a short book out loud. It’s all great fun and not apparently meant to be taken seriously. Don Quixote’s madness seems more like an excuse for whimsy and fun.
The second part – published in 1615 to refute the unauthorized part two that purported to be the further adventures of Don Quixote – reads almost as a different story. The pace slows down considerably, there are far less random and whimsical occurrences, and Cervantes now has a point he is making.
For one, instead of the constant references to how deluded Don Quixote is, there are far more references to how intelligent and erudite he is, despite his madness in this one area regarding chivalry. Sancho Panza is portrayed in a much kinder light, too; as possessing simple, common sense. And in the place of random occurrences is a practical joke being played by a Duke and Duchess to show and derive amusement at how mad these two are. In the light of the cruelty of all those who seek to derive amusement from them, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza emerge with far more humanity and dignity, despite their humiliations.
It’s like Cervantes considered books possibly, perhaps humorously, dangerous in the first part, but in the second that point is gone and now the chivalric ideals seem far more ideal – if inherently impractical and never having truly existed, anyway; though there is something noble in how Don Quixote strives to live by them.
It makes for much slower reading, however. It’s poignant, completely tragic and a bit startling after the sheer exuberant fun of the first part. Perhaps the point is made all the more effective for the lighthearted first half.
One endearing aspect of the book is the friendship between Don Quixote and Sancho, particularly in the second part. Harold Bloom remarks, in his introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza really listen to each other and change through this receptivity.” When, as part of a joke, Sancho is given a governorship temporarily, both men miss each other’s company and bear each other’s words in mind and are most happy to be reunited.
In the back of my copy is a collection of quotes regarding the significance of Don Quixote. The literary critic Lionel Trilling said that “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote” and the writer, Carlos Fuentes, is quoted as saying that “Don Quixote is the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction; here we have Gogol and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Nabokov, Borges and Bellow, Sterne and Diderot in their genetic nakedness, once more taking the road with the gentleman and the squire, believing the world is what we read and discovering that the world reads us.”
This is rather cosmic literary praise; the kind of praise I’ve only heard lavished on the Bible and Shakespeare. William Shakespeare and Miguel De Cervantes were contemporaries, though there is no evidence either knew of the others existence. It must have been a remarkable time for literature. After reading the book, I can understand the praise, though. The book has it all: tragedy and comedy, life and death. Although I do not believe that just because something is ambiguous, therefore it must be profound, I do agree with Harold Bloom in his introduction when he says that, like Shakespeare, Don Quixote can bear many interpretations, or angles and focuses of interpretations. Life is like that, not particularly clear cut, and when a work of art can capture life, it does bear the myriad interpretations of the world. This is why some books can also bear multiple reads.
One interpretation that I found interesting is by Ivan Jaksic, in his article “Don Quijote’s Encounter with Technology.” He makes the case that Don Quixote’s embracing of chivalry, the perceived values of an older age, is part of a “confrontation with” technology and a changing world. However, ironically, it is technology that has allowed him to embrace chivalry, since it was the printing press that has made books, which is where he derived his ideas, easily available. It is also ironic, since Don Quixote believes, that since these stories of knights are written down and printed, then they must be true. Jaksic points out that many of Don Quixote’s adventures involve technology: “the windmills, water-powered grain mills, fulling hammers, and firearms, among others.”
There is also, of course, the interpretation offered in the quote by Fuentes, about “believing the world is what we read.” Some argue that Cervantes is saying that it is better, more ennobling, to live with a fantasy than with the cold facts of life.
I find that there is, at least in the second part – I still feel the first part was written chiefly for entertainment and not for any didactic purpose – but there is a celebration of humanity and decency; a valuing of humans. There is something inhuman in how people, even in the first part, encourage Don Quixote in his belief simply so that they might be amused. When he is not being beaten, he is being mocked. Whereas, for all his madness and faults, Don Quixote assumes that everyone is nobler than they really are.