Reading Don Quixote in Spain

I started reading Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes when I was twenty-one. Nine hundred and ninety-two pages long, this was an intimidating book. Like most people, I paused post the windmill scene, went out for pizza, read a Sidney Sheldon novel and never resumed the tales of the infamous knight-errant and his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza. Contrary to what I had read about the book, I found it neither arresting nor intriguing enough to bother about it again.

This January, when I arrived in Madrid, Spain, I saw that Don Quixote was as ubiquitous as patatas bravas. From souvenir shops to statues, I could see him everywhere. A literary figure that had survived and thrived through four centuries of war and peace had to have something special about him, I thought. My curiosity led me to the book again after over a decade and I am glad it did because after reading just a few more chapters I could see that this book is truly deserving of its reputation as a masterpiece.

The story – Tedious or Elaborate?

The funny thing is, after having dedicatedly finished the book, I came to learn from my Spanish friends that none of them have been able to finish it because they found it too tedious. I don’t know if I am disappointed or amused.

Written in two parts, the book starts with Alonso Quixano, a middle-aged man living in a village of La Mancha with his young niece and a devoted housekeeper. Alonso is so infatuated with books of chivalry that he brings himself to believe that those fables of knight-errantry, like the tales of Amadis de Gaul, are pieces of veritable history. Eventually, affected by all the drivel he reads, he believes he has found his calling in the honorable pursuit of knight-errantry. He names his horse Rocinante and renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha to sound the part he is set to play. In accordance with the norms of knight-errantry, he must find a lady for whom he can pine and to whom he can send his vanquished enemies as presents. He picks a farm-girl from Toboso to play the love-interest. Having never seen her, he only knows her by her name and because that name is too ordinary, he confers on her the name of Dulcinea del Toboso. Having accomplished this, he sets out from home in search of honorable adventures that will revive chivalry and bring justice to the world. A few chimerical and concocted adventures later, he has to be brought back home, injured and weak. Unyielding in his noble quest, he sets out again with his new squire Sancho Panza, a simple-minded farmer who is full of proverbs that he spurts arbitrarily at inopportune moments and who is accompanied by his beloved ass, Dapple.

How does the story progress in two parts?

The first part of the book follows the duo through trials and perils, once again, more conjured than real. While the exploits and events are hilarious, they also hint at moral and social enigmas that continue to persist till date. For example, one of my favorite characters in the book, Marcela – a beautiful young shepherdess, is blamed for causing the death of a young man with her refusal to return his affections. She defends her choices, her right to freedom and questions her obligation to reciprocate a man’s love who only loves her because she is beautiful.

“Nay—tell me—had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me?”

Throughout their journey, Don Quixote, while choleric in temperament and insane when it comes to chivalry, imparts words of worldly wisdom and shows impeccable rationality in every other sphere of life. Whether he is a madman who believes in giants and enchantments, or an actor consciously playing the part of a knight so well that he convinces himself of being one, is not the critical question. The question is – whether a passion so intense, although illogical and worthless to most, gives one’s life purpose and one’s body the strength to undergo all the failures and injuries willingly.

The second part, which was published ten years after the first one came out, sees Don Quixote
and Sancho on a fresh road to adventure. Cervantes’ storytelling style is different as he grows
more philosophical and critical in his depictions.

This part begins by assuming that almost all the literate characters whom Don Quixote meets now know him through the tales of his previous adventure, mostly by way of a dubious narrative by another author. Funnily, Cervantes’ accusation regarding this spurious narrative has its base.

After his first volume became popular throughout Spain, a sequel was published by another author under the pseudonym of Avellaneda. It was deemed crappy and in the book, Cervantes himself constantly criticizes the author’s work through interactions between Don Quixote and other characters who confuse him with Avellaneda’s Don Quixote. A lot of people feel, and with good reason, that Avellaneda’s work was what pushed Cervantes to write his own sequel.

The sequel

Most of the sequel deals with a duke and duchess who, to have a good laugh, concoct stories, play pranks and present Don Quixote and Sancho with several challenges to test the first’s love for his lady Dulcinea del Toboso and the latter’s devotion to his master. As promised in the first part, Sancho becomes the governor of a make-believe island and runs it rather well but abandons it when he realizes that governing people is not fun.

I thought this volume was far more engrossing than the previous one. Sancho’s proverbial prowess and his sincere yet rationed loyalty toward Don Quixote are as hilarious as thought- provoking. The second part strikes me also as more realistic in the way that the characters explore themselves. Don Quixote’s own fears and doubts which were hardly ever exposed to the reader in the first part are occasionally laid bare in this part and Sancho’s clarity of mind concerning his simple preferences for homely comforts over an ambitious yet hazardous position of power is something to which a lot of us could relate. After several fantastic adventures, Don Quixote and Sancho return to their village in La Mancha with a desire to retire to the fields as shepherds. However, soon Don Quixote abandons the idea and as if waking from a reverie, starts denouncing chivalry. When he writes his final will, he includes a provision to disinherit his niece if she marries a man who reads books of chivalry.

Why should everyone read this book?

It’s often said that this book is a first-grade work by a second-grade artist. None of Miguel de Cervantes’ other works have garnered the sort of respect Don Quixote did. Cervantes, The Prince of Wits, became the creator of a masterpiece – the first modern novel, that has been translated into more languages than any other book, second only to the Bible.

This is also the book that has been commended and referenced by authors like Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas, and Arthur Schopenhauer.

Read the book, already? Test your memory here

Author(s): Miguel Cervantes
Publisher: Fingerprint
Release: 2017
Genre: Fiction
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