It has been a while since my last post, but it has been time well spent. For the past four months I have been reading “Don Quixote” by Cervantes and me being a slow reader, a thousand pages does take a bit of time.
“Don Quixote” was a great experience. In fact, this is by heaps and leagues the best book on the List so far. It was never an ordeal to read this book, on the contrary, I enjoyed myself immensely.
The story is famous, incredibly famous, actually, and many of the elements has gone into popular culture, also in Denmark, and stayed there. I even saw a cartoon series on the Don Quixote and Sancho story on my son’s children channels. I just never read it before and frankly, I do not know anybody who has, at least outside blogging circles. And that is truly a shame.
Don Quixote is a middle-aged man who has read so many romantic chivalry novels that he has decided they are real and that he should be a knight-errant himself. He sallies out from his village in La Mancha, first alone, but later with a local farmer, Sancho Panza as his squire. Don Quixote is delusional, and Sancho is simpleminded (but also shrewd) and together they are a comical sight. Their search of adventure is a continual string of disasters and when they finally encounter true adventure they miss out on it.
The equivalent today would be a super hero story, of somebody imagining that he had super powers and that his mission in life was to rescue the innocents from monstrous beings. “Kick-Ass” would be a good example. This very familiar analogue makes the story completely relevant today. Don Quixote imagines he has obtained medieval super powers and the comedy is watching him fooling around.
There is a cruel streak here. Especially in the beginning the fun is at his expense and it might not go down so well today, but as the story goes on the cruelty subsides and you sometimes wonder who the fools really are. Maybe Don Quixote is the one who is actually right, and the rest of the world has turned cynical and mean. Sancho as well develops from the butt of jokes to the eyes through which we see the world with other, less prejudiced, eyes. His term as governor is a good example of that.
“Don Quixote” is actually two books. The first, released in 1505, is a meandering story with a lot of subplots with very little connection to the main theme and with only limited character development. The second, from 1515 is a lot more focused on a plot line and includes some very interesting elements worth mentioning. The meta element is expanded a lot. Already in the first book the story is told as if it was translated from a Moorish writer called Cide Hamete Benengeli, as what today would be called “found footage”. In the second book Don Quixote meets people who has read the first book and therefore know the story of everything that happened until the beginning of the second book. They know him as an entertaining fool and Don Quixote’s adventures here are largely other people playing tricks on him. Later he even encounters people who have read a piece of “fan fiction” about Don Quixote and Don Quixote goes out of his way to prove he is not the character described there.
By focusing on Don Quixote and Sancho and especially their dialogue we also get the character fleshed out and the sympathy for them grows.
The comedy works incredibly well. My favorite topic is the 3300 lashes Sancho has to give himself to dispel the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso from the enchantment inflicted on her and Don Quixote’s pleading him to get on with the lashing. Every time it is brought up I am chuckling. The picture is so vivid. Another fantastic image is that of Don Quixote demonstrating for Sancho what crazy antics he will go through to demonstrate his love and despair for his Dulcinea, out there, in the hills of the first book.
“Don Quixote” may be a comedy about how stupid you get from reading chivalric romances (or super hero cartoons), but it is also a story that forever has defined the chivalric theme. Who today knows about Amadis or Orlando? Instead we know of Don Quixote and Sancho.