Sunday, April 06, 2014

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605 & 1615; trans. John Ormsby, 1885)

Okay, so there's probably not a whole lot I can say to shine any additional light on a novel like Don Quixote, but hey, I read it, and I wanted to make that fact known.  I'm trying to fill in some of the more notable holes in my literary education, of which this book was possibly the biggest.  A lot of people (NB: I'm restricting my comments to the Anglosphere here) know the basic concept, but not too many know about in any depth.  How many people can name an episode from the book other than "tilting at windmills?"  I sure couldn't have before picking it up.

Now, I must admit, I feel like my understanding of why Don Quixote is considered so massively influential remains on a more or less academic level.  That is to say, I liked it, but it didn't rocket to a position as one of my most favoritest books EVER or anything like that.  I worry that writing about it in an "I liked this/I didn't like this" way is slightly vulgar--like when high school students heap derision in the classics they are force-fed.  What do YOU know, you little shit?  But, I'm going to anyway.  Not heap derision on it.  You know what I mean.  Shut up.

Don Quixote consists of two more or less equally-sized parts, published at a ten-year interval.  I do believe I liked the first half better.  It gives you pretty much exactly what you expect and want, Don-Quixote-wise: the Don and Sancho wander around and things happen according to the former's chivalric delusions.  I don't really find this as gut-splittingly hilarious as a lot of people apparently have in the past five hundred years.  It may well just be a matter of time and general familiarity-through-osmosis having dulled the impact a bit, but Cervantes explaining how Don Quixote THOUGHT the inn was a castle, but it WASN'T, cause he was CRAZY…well, that kind of humor only goes so far with me.  Which really isn't that far.  I still enjoyed it, though, and I particularly liked the way that Cervantes is quite unafraid to digress like mad and tell stories--some of them quite long!--about side-characters that have nothing to do with the main narrative.  There's one about a soldier taken prisoner by Moors in Algeria which becomes pretty incredible when you realize that it's very thinly-veiled autobiography.  I'll tell you this much: the evidence suggests that, in addition to whatever else, he was a hell of a guy.

The second part I didn't dislike, exactly, but I did like it substantially less--which is kind of odd when you consider all that it has going for it: firstly, the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are deepened; in the first part, they're more or less just delusional and gullible/dumb, respectively.  But in the second, Cervantes goes to some pains to make clear that Don Quixote is only crazy when it comes to this knight-errantry stuff; on any other topic, he can be clear-eyed and wise.  Similarly, Sancho, while still in some ways dumb, also has the capacity for some real shrewdness, and, when some mischievous nobles trick him into thinking he's the governor of an island (a prize which Quixote had indefinitely promised him throughout the first and most of the second book), against all odds, he actually does a pretty decent job, while he lasts.  Secondly (you do remember that "firstly" up there, don't you?), the second part is considerably more playfully meta-fictional than the first (the fact that Borges chose DQ as the subject of one of his most famous stories becomes easy to understand).  As you probably know, there's this conceit throughout Don Quixote that most of the story comes from a Moorish author named Cide Hamete Benengeli.  The second half, however, goes a lot further; Don Quixote and Sancho meet any number of characters who are familiar with the first part of the book, and Cervantes even has characters comment on a number of famous inconsistencies (notably, the fact that he gives Sancho's wife different names at different points) and quirks about the first book that, presumably, people at the time complained about.

So that's all well and good, but the narrative in the second half doesn't really cohere very well, I felt.  That may seem like a meaningless complaint in a picaresque novel, but the differences between the two parts are notable.  In the second, there really aren't much in the way of sustained narratives outside the main story (give the people what they want, I guess), and those that are tend to feel really half-baked and indeterminate--as does the main plot a lot of the time, really.  Also, I kind of hated the ending.  See--spoilers for massively-famous five-hundred-year-old novel!--Don Quixote dies.  Cervantes makes it pretty darn clear that this is mainly because he was super pissed-off at the anonymous dude who had written an unauthorized second part before he got around to it, and that he's killing off his hero so no one else can do anything like that.  I'm not wild about that decision--weirdly, against all odds, I started sorta kinda liking the old coot--but what I really don't like is the way that, at the very end, he totally comes to his senses and utterly and unequivocally denounces all the chivalric romances on which he had based his persona.  I know the book was never endorsing its hero's madness, but I had thought there was a certain level of affection in the portrayal, and it's jarring to be told in so many words, no, he was just completely deranged and fucked in the head and thank god we can conclude that everything he did was wholly futile on a literal and symbolic level and none of it meant anything whatsoever.  Geez, man.  A bit more on the nihilistic side than I'd like.

Still worth reading, and not exclusively for historical value, but the ration of historical value to entertainment value may be higher than desired.  Of course, it could all be the translation--but Ormsby's has the reputation of being the most exact one out there, and although I certainly can't rule out the possibility that there's some other that would have increased my enjoyment, I remain skeptical that anything could've really smoothed over the things I disliked.  Still, give it a go, as long as you're not just reading it to better understand the Gordon Lightfoot song (that's probably most people these days, right?).  In that case, it's less help than you'd think.


Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Ok, I don't want to sound ironic to what you wrote aboce but... OMG! THAT'S ONE OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME!!! It's one of those novel that when I started to read I coudn't put it down. For me the entire book is just enjoying the character of Don Kichote and I love the narration style. It's incredable enjoyable read.

In fact in film scool one of the profesor recomend us the book as "best example how should we write comlex characters"

It's a complitly difrent type of story but I strongly recomend "Get Me out of Here" by Rachel Reiland, another of my favorite novels...

10:40 AM  

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