Thursday, January 05, 2012

‘The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha’ by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

5 January 2012

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha’ by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, as an unabridged audio book translated by John Ormsby, revised, updated and read by Roy McMillan. It’s a massive book – the audio version lasts 36 hours – and I’m afraid it did feel very long. Everyone knows about ‘Don Quixote’ but it was an interesting experience actually reading it. At first it is hard to know how to take it: on the surface Cervantes is clearly parodying a particular style of chivalrous tale of knights of old, but the stories being parodied are now unfamiliar, so the tales of Don Quixote’s mistaken skirmishes with windmills and the like appear to us a simple child-like slapstick. This cartoon narrative is funny but doesn’t seem sophisticated enough to hold your attention over such a long novel. But then you gradually begin to see something cleverer going on in the way the story is told and, in particular, the question of who is telling the story. We appear to be in the hands of an omniscient narrator who knows all that befell Don Quixote and his trusty squire Sancho Panza, even when there was clearly no-one else present. But then there are references to the different versions of Don Quixote’s story, suggesting that he has been written about by many authors and his exploits have become the stuff of legend. ‘Don Quixote’ was published by Cervantes in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, and in the second part the knight and his squire frequently encounter people who have read the earlier volume and are familiar with their history. This must be one of the earliest examples of meta-fiction and Cervantes proceeds to have lots of fun with the premise: the author himself points out inconsistencies in earlier chapters where, for example, Sancho Panza’s ass is stolen in one scene but he is then described as riding it again in the next. We are told that the author of this account of the Don’s life wrote it in Arabic and that it was then translated into Spanish. The narrator then interjects with comments about the original Arabic author and also about the translator – so who is making these comments? This becomes a very clever, entertaining and rewarding exercise in narrative style. The other thing that Cervantes does very impressively is to construct two classic comic characters, whose influence can be seen to the present day. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are both deluded simpletons but with their own serious and consistent logic. I worried at first that we were simply being invited to laugh at Don Quixote’s mental illness as he mistakes an inn for a castle or windmills for giants, and even when these obvious mistakes are pointed out to him he excuses them by claiming he has been enchanted by evil forces. But there is much emphasis on the way in which Don Quixote is actually very sensible and logical on every topic except that of knights errant as he has been corrupted by reading too many chivalrous tales. And gradually you realise that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are wonderfully drawn characters with their own internal logic – exaggerated cartoon creations placed in an otherwise real-world setting. Though set in a different continent at a different time, their picaresque adventures reminded me of the Coen Brothers film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ – itself a loose version of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. Cleverly, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza can both see through many of each other’s delusions, while remaining blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings. These are comic simpletons with a serious approach to life – like Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise or Alan Partridge. I enjoyed reading ‘Don Quixote’: it is too long but you can see why it became so revered and how influential it has been and I will miss The Knight of the Rueful Countenance and his loyal companion with whom I have travelled so far.



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