DON QUIXOTE

SONY DSC

Author: Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616)
Editors: Edith Grossman
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers (2005 Edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store

Introduction

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is Spain’s most famous author and Don Quixote, full title The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (or El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha) is his most famous work. The First Part was published in 1605. It appears that Cervantes was working on the sequel when someone using the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda published an unauthorised sequel in 1614. This apparently pushed Cervantes to finish his own sequel and it was finally published in 1615, just a year before his death.

Cervantes is to Spanish literature what his contemporary Shakespeare is to English literature. And coincidentally, Cervantes died on 22 April 1616, one day before Shakespeare. But unlike Shakespeare and other Elizabethan-Jacobean writers who produced mostly plays, Cervantes is celebrated for his prose fiction. Don Quixote is one of the first novels in any European language.

In a poll organised by the editors of the Norwegian Book Club in 2002, well-known authors from 54 countries were asked to choose the 100 books ever written. The Book Club did not rank the books chosen but singled out Don Quixote as having received 50% more votes than any other book. Critics and experts polled by the newspaper The Observer in 2003 voted Don Quixote number 1 in a poll of the 100 greatest novels of all time. The novel has given the English language the term “quixotic” and the idiom “tilting at windmills”.

What is it about?

Alonso Quijano, a poor noble, went mad after reading too many books about chivalry. In his mind, he became a knight errant named Don Quixote. He imagined a peasant girl Aldonza Lorenzo as Dulcinea del Toboso as his ideal lady-love and set out in search of adventures in her name. He recruited his neighbour Sancho Panza as his squire after his first sally ended with a beating.

Themes

Cervantes lived and died in Spain during the height of her imperial power. The year 1492, just a little over 50 years before he was born, was a momentous one in Spanish history. The Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, ended 781 years of Islamic rule in Spain by recapturing Granada (completing the so-called reconsquita). That unleashed the expulsions and/or forced conversions of Jews and Muslims (moriscos) and atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition. In the same year, the monarchs financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World, ushering in the Age of Discovery. The inflow of precious metals and other resources from the Americas would eventually transform Spain into the world’s first superpower under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty (c 1506 – 1700). Habsburg Spain dominated Europe militarily for much of the 16th and 17th century before declining in the late 17th century.

The Habsburg dynasty coincided with the so-called Golden Age of Spain (Siglo de Oro in Spanish). During this period, there was a great flowering in Spanish literature, art, drama, music and even architecture. However, the works created from this period are not known outside Spain today other than in academic circles with the exception of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.

Spanish literature during Cervantes’ time was dominated by 2 genres. Chivalric romance, which was extremely popular amongst the European aristocracy from the 12th to the 16th century, celebrated the adventures of knights and their code of loyalty, honour and courtly behaviour. The genre flourished in France (the Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes in late 12th century), England (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by an unknown author from late 14th century and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, 1485), Italy (Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, 1516 – 1532) and Spain itself (Amadis de Gaula by an unknown author, 1505). The second genre was picaresque fiction, traditionally considered as originating with Lazarillo de Tormes a novella published anonymously in Spain (1554). Picaresque novels are characterised by the adventures of a low-born but appealing hero (picaro in Spanish) told in humorous and satiric episodes and in realistic language.

Don Quixote is a satire of chivalric romances written in the style of a picaresque novel. The protagonist Don Quixote met (or thought he met) giants, enchanters and enchantresses, Moors and hostile armies, just like the typical hero of a Romance. The difference is the generous helping of humour that Cervantes added to the mix.

The comic and episodic format of the novel is reminiscent of the Chinese classic Journey to the West, thought to be written in the 16th century.

Cervantes used a number of literary devices in his novel. Most of the novel (starting from the First Part, Chap IX) is supposedly derived from a history written in Arabic by Cide Hamete Benengeli, a fictional Moorish author, translated into the Castilian language by an unnamed morisco and edited by Cervantes — in other words, the original Spanish version is supposed to be a translation which means any English translation is a translation of a translation! The novel (especially the First Part) contains a number of digressions in the form of stories told by characters that Don Quixote encountered. More remarkably, in the Second Part, the characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were aware that they have been written about in both the authorised First Part of Cervantes’ novel as well as the unauthorised sequel.

The entire novel is very comical and occasionally laugh out loud funny. The Second Part contains more more serious moments, including passages on honour, religion etc. In Chap XLII and XLIII, Don Quixote dispensed advice to Sancho Panza on how to be a good ruler and a good person, reminiscent of Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Hamlet (1.3).

What about the book?

This is a beautiful deckle-edged volume and contains both First and Second Parts. It is a massive 940 pages long. Grossman has translated the novel into modern English. There is an introduction by Harold Bloom.

Finally …

The First Part is difficult reading in part. The interpolated novels are a little annoying. It is far more interesting to read about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza than characters like that idiot who insisted on testing his wife’s faithfulness (First Part, chapters XXXIII – XXXV).

Don Quixote is recognised as one of the most influential novels of Western literature. A number of novels, some classics in their own right, are influenced by Don Quixote — eg. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759 –1767) by Laurence Sterne, Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert and The Idiot (1869) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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