Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote loomed on my literary horizon for over 30 years, ever since I enjoyed a portion of a German translation as a teenager. Still venerated as one of the masterpieces of world literature, Cervantes (1547-1616) published part one in 1605, but required the impetus of a fake sequel by another writer to complete part two, which appeared only one year before his death. This summer, I finally tackled the 2003 English translation by Edith Grossman, extolled by experts and critics.
It took three cycles of borrowing the 940 page volume from the library before I finished it, as fellow readers were as eager for a copy as I, a testament to its enduring popularity. This intermittent, but extended interaction over the course of three months enhanced my enjoyment, since I didn’t simply plow through it. During each enforced hiatus, I imagined what might be happening to my newfound friends, and looked forward to spending time with them again.
As a refresher, here is a very abbreviated cast of characters, followed by a brief plot summary:
-Don Quixote of La Mancha, namesake and protagonist, knight errant
-Rocinante, his nag, as thin and haggard as his master
-Sancho Panza, his erring squire
-The Gray, Sancho’s donkey
Don Quixote, a member of Spain’s impoverished gentry, has too much time on his hands which he fills with the study of romances of chivalry. These engender the unquenchable thirst to revive the lost tradition of knight errantry. He employs a local peasant, Sancho, as his squire, and they set out into rural Spain looking for adventures, all in an attempt to win the heart and hand of the Lady Dulcinea of Toboso, a figment of Quixote’s fancy, inspired by a real woman in the locality. In his single-mindedness he interprets every event in the tradition of the stories of old, and sees everywhere damsels in distress, and wrongs that need to be righted. Sancho Panza starts out with some common sense, but this is gradually replaced by a Folie à deux, as he embraces Don Quixote’s delusions.
Even though he is intelligent and extremely well spoken during lucid moments, the self-proclaimed knight is considered mad by most. During the first part of the novel, he actively drives the action with his misguided attempts to provide unsolicited assistance for which he suffers brutal physical attacks and punishments. In the sequel, he is passively drawn into a maelstrom of situations staged by his fellow human beings, which seem to support his imaginary world, and which he is unable to resist. Either way, he is ridiculed and demeaned. One might view Quixote as misguided, mistaken, or insane, but one feels sympathy for his quest which is all-encompassing, and gives meaning to his life, even to the detriment of his health and standing in society.
Frequently described as a proto-novel, Don Quixote is significant for the author’s masterful language, his profound sense of humor, and the careful and loving depiction of his characters. I found his deliberate use of synonyms and meandering narrative with a thousand subplots liberating, refreshing, and therapeutic, because they stand in stark contrast to much modern-day writing which tends to be terse. His autobiographic, historic, and literary allusions paint a detailed picture of his time and background. Even though I was briefly tempted to skip a portion when weighing the hefty work, I soon realized that I did not want to miss out on anything that befell our heroes, once I allowed myself to travel along at Rocinante’s and the Gray’s pace, and to take innumerable detours along small country roads.
Satisfied to have waded through the depth of Cervantes’s masterpiece, I am nonetheless sad to have closed the tome. Contrary to the tale’s ending, in my mind, his immortal creations Don Quixote and Sancho Panza continue to travel the chivalric heavens, still prepared to right all wrongs, when they are not arguing about Sancho’s stringing together of proverbs. While the knight errant is on the lookout for fresh exploits, sitting in his saddle on Rocinante while leaning on his lance, erring Sancho is filling his corpulent paunch with vittles and generous swigs from a wineskin, before drifting off to carefree sleep.
Have you read Don Quixote? What did you think of it?
Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version: