With these words, Miguel Cervantes begins one of the greatest prose works in human history. Depending on how the reader chooses to approach Cervantes' two-part creation, Don Quixote can be viewed as a devastating critique of the excessive proto-Romanticism found in the popular 15th-17th century heroic epics, or it can be read as an endearing tragic/comedy of an idealist sallying forth into a jaded, materialistic world. How the reader approaches the material perhaps says as much about s/he as it does about Don Quixote as a whole.En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme...
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind...
Published in two parts between 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote (or El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, to give this book its modern Spanish title) is not strictly speaking a novel. Rather, it is a series of sallies or adventures by an aging bachelor, Alonso Quixano (or Quesada or other possible names, if one pays overly strict attention to the introductory chapters), who has come to see himself as the heir to the Paladins of France or to all the Amadus (Amadi?) of Gaul, Greece, and other parts known and unknown. When Cervantes began writing this work, epic poems from the likes of Ariosto (whose Orlando Furioso comes out relatively unscathed compared to the other epic poets of the time) to Cervantes' sometimes-rival Lope de Vega were all the rage. Some of these works, like those of Boiardo and Ariosto have survived the test of time, while those like de Vega's attempt to write an epic within the Orlando mythos are drab, lifeless affairs. Cervantes satirizes this in the Ch. 6 of Part I, when, under orders from Quixote's worried niece, a local curate and barber are dispatched to sort through Quixote's books in order to remove the ones most likely to have caused his chivalric malady:
Y el primero que maese Nicolás le dio en las manos, fue los cuatro de Amadís de Gaula, y dijo el cura:This passage sets the tone for most of the rest of the First Part; Quixote (and after a short while, the peasant/squire Sancho) refers again and again to these chivalrous works before proceeding to do all sorts of madness. While many readers might chortle at the tilting at windmills or Quixote's attempt to evoke knightly privilege in order to get out of paying for lodging and food at an inn, what made these scenes hilarious for readers in Cervantes' time was the knowledge that he was satirizing some of the most popular writers of that generation and the one before it. Regardless of how one approaches the iconic scenes from the First Part, it is a testimony to how memorable Quixote has made his characters and their situations that different interpretations can be applied to any particular scene with equal enjoyment being possible. Borges' Pierre Menard, if he were in existence, might be nodding his head in agreement with this.
- Parece cosa de misterio ésta; porque, según he oído decir, este libro fue el primero de caballerías que se imprimió en España, y todos los demás han tomado principio y origen déste; y así, me parece, que, como a dogmatizador de una secta tan mala, le debemos sin excusa alguna condenar al fuego.
- No, señor - dijo el barbero - , que también he oído decir que es el mejor de todos los libros que este género se han compuesto; y así, como a único en su arte, se debe perdonar.
- Así es verdad - dijo el cura -, y por esta razón se le otorga la vida por ahora. Veamos esotro que está junto a él.
- Es -dijo el barbero-, Las sergas de Esplandián, hijo legítimo de Amadís de Gaula.
-Pues en verdad - dijo el cura, que no le ha de valer al hijo la bondad del padre; tomad, señora ama, abrid esa ventana y echadle al corral, y dé principio al montón de la hoguera que se ha de hacer.
Hizolo así el ama con mucho contento, y el bueno de Esplandián fue volando al corral, esperando con toda paciencia el fuego que le amenazaba.
- Adelante - dijo el cura.
- Este que viene - dijo el barbero - es Amadís de Grecia, y aun todos los deste lado, a lo que creo, son del mesmo linaje de Amadis.
- Pues vayan todos al corral - dijo el cura -, que a trueco de quemar a la reina Pintiquiniestra y al pastor Darinel y a sus églogas, y a las endiabladas y revueltas razones de su autor, quemara con ellos al padre que me engendró, si anduviera en figura de caballero andante.
The first that Master Nicholas put into his hand was "The four books of Amadis of Gaul." "This seems a mysterious thing," said the curate, "for, as I have heard say, this was the first book of chivalry printed in Spain, and from this all the others derive their birth and origin; so it seems to me that we ought inexorably to condemn it to the flames as the founder of so vile a sect."
"Nay, sir," said the barber, "I too, have heard say that this is the best of all the books of this kind that have been written, and so, as something singular in its line, it ought to be pardoned."
"True," said the curate; "and for that reason let its life be spared for the present. Let us see that other which is next to it."
"It is," said the barber, "the 'Sergas de Esplandian,' the lawful son of Amadis of Gaul.'"
"Then verily," said the curate, "the merit of the father must not be put down to the account of the son. Take it, mistress housekeeper; open the window and fling it into the yard and lay the foundation of the pile for the bonfire we are to make."
The housekeeper obeyed with great satisfaction, and the worthy "Esplandian" went flying into the yard to await with all patience the fire that was in store for him.
"Proceed," said the curate.
"This that comes next," said the barber, "is 'Amadis of Greece,' and, indeed, I believe all those on this side are of the same Amadis lineage."
"Then to the yard with the whole of them," said the curate; "for to have the burning of Queen Pintiquiniestra, and the shepherd Darinel and his eclogues, and the bedevilled and involved discourses of his author, I would burn with them the father who begot me if he were going about in the guise of a knight-errant." (p. 72)
The Second Part is different in feel from the First. It is not as outlandish; Don Quixote is not as buffonish here and the savage satire which Cervantes utilized in the First Part has been toned down in favor of longer, more philosophical passages. Yet this does not mean that the narrative weakens in its power. Instead, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza expand their roles, becoming not just the butt of jokes, but also commentaries on the meanness and cruelties of the actual world which is mostly devoid of the chivalric values that Quixote expresses. If the first half was devoted to satirizing the excesses of chivalry, the second concerns itself with showing how idealism, in reasonable amounts, can be an antidote for the world's self-inflicted ills.
Although I first read this in Spanish, I did read the Easton Press edition, containing a 19th century translation by John Ormsby. I wish I could say it was a good translation; those who know the slightly archaic 17th century Spanish in which Cervantes composed will have realized that Ormsby took some liberties with the text in order to make it read better for an English audience. Yet it is not terrible; there are times where the subtleties of Cervantes' prose shines through in this translation. This is more than I can say of the Signet Classics translation of Don Quixote that I read several years ago, as that one left me wondering just what it was that was supposed to be so wonderful about Cervantes' story.
Don Quixote, as I said above, is not a true novel, but more a collection of adventures which are interconnected. As such, the stories and adventures are woven together almost perfectly; each blends seamlessly into the next. Combined with the satiric wit that Cervantes uses to set up several scenes, this novel is a comic masterpiece which also serves as a commentary on a now-moribund literary genre. It is truly a classic which contains several elements that will appeal to a broad audience. Highly recommended.