Sunday, February 22, 2009

Don Quixote

Considered the first modern novel, and one of the greatest works of world literature, Don Quixote has been translated into English many times. This version by Samuel Putnam appeared in 1949.

The book, whose full title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote De La Mancha consists of two parts that were published separately in 1605 and 1615. Together they take up more than 1000 pages in the Putnam translation.

One of the book's most remarkable aspects is the freshness of the language. It does not sound like a work that is 400 years old.

The Story

Don Quixote, approaching 50 years of age and guilty of reading too many books of chivalry, takes it into his head to go on the road as a knight-errant. He cobbles together a suit of armor, including a helmet with a pasteboard visor, and sets out on a bony nag named Rocinante.

His self-appointed task is to right wrongs, defend honour, and proclaim the beauty of a farm girl he's never met. Upon her he bestows a grand-sounding name, Dulcinea del Toboso.

Accompanying him is a fat peasant named Sancho Panza, who is simple and loyal, happiest when his stomach is full. He rides out on an ass, spouting proverbs and malapropisms, sustained by the hope of receiving an earldom or the governorship of an island.

As a result of his delusions, Don Quixote is repeatedly thrashed, pummelled, and humiliated. He mistakes windmills for giants, an inn for a castle, and a brass pot for a helmet. Yet despite such mishaps his faith in himself never wavers, and he has a convenient explanation for his misfortunes. They are the work of an evil enchanter.

Part I contains a number of famous scenes (the windmills, the slaying of wineskins, the attack on a flock of sheep) and is said to be the more popular of the two books. Putnam’s preference, however, is for Part II, which he considers a more accomplished work.

Part I is weighed down by several tales of romantic intrigue. There is "The Captive's Tale" and "The Story of the One Who Was Too Curious for His Own Good," as well as some improbable love affairs that displace Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for large portions of Part I.

In Part II there are still a number of romantic interludes, but none are as intrusive or cloying as those in Part I.

As evidence of the novel's modernity, I present the following excerpt in which Don Quixote tells Sancho Panza of a balm that can restore health despite the severest injury. The scene is eerily similar to the famous encounter with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Don Quixote says:

…whenever in any battle you see my body cut in two—as very often happens—all that is necessary is for you to take the part that lies on the ground, before the blood has congealed, and fit it very neatly and with great nicety upon the other part that remains in the saddle, taking care to adjust it evenly and exactly. Then you will give me but a couple swallows of the balm of which I have told you, and you will see me sounder than an apple in no time at all.

Narrative Structure

In Part I the narrator tells us the book has been written in Arabic by a Moor named Cid Hamete Benengeli. The narrator has only a fragment in his possession, but in Chapter IX discovers the complete work in a Toledo marketplace, and hires a Moor to translate it.

In Part II the narrator frequently interrupts the tale with comments about the fictional author and translator. It is a delightful irony that most readers will be reading a real and not a phony translation.

A metafictional layer is added when the characters begin talking about Part I, whose success has made Don Quixote and Sancho Panza famous. Other characters are aware of their exploits, and several shortcomings in Book I are discussed.

A further complication is the existence of a spurious Part II, which was published one year before Cervantes’ Part II. In the latter, Don Quixote learns that the rival version has him visiting Sargossa to take part in a tournament, and this causes him to deliberately bypass it.

If Don Quixote is the first modern novel, it is also the first post-modern novel.

Miguel de Cervantes

Not much is known about his early life, other than that his childhood was itinerant and impoverished. As an adult he spent time in Italy before entering military service. He took part in the Battle of Lepanto, where he was shot in the chest and lost the use of his left hand.

When he recovered, he resumed active duty only to be captured by pirates and held as a slave for a number of years in Algiers. He was finally ransomed by his family after several abortive escape attempts. These events are reflected in the Captive’s Tale.

Even after his return to Spain, Cervantes’ life continued to be somewhat precarious. He wrote plays, became a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and was imprisoned more than once.

He died in the year following the publication of Book II of Don Quixote – 23 April 1616 – the same date as Shakespeare’s death.

So popular was Don Quixote that it had a significant impact on the Spanish language.