Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha

The story of Don Quixote is a simple one. Alonzo Quixada, an avid reader of tales of chivalry, decides one day that it is his destiny to become a knight-errant. He finds himself a knight-like name, some armour, a horse, a name for the horse, and a lady-love, and later a squire (the wonderful Sancho Panza), and sets off to do good deeds. This makes up the entirety of the content of Cervantes' masterpiece.

To be honest, until very recently I wouldn't have called this a masterpiece - in fact, the only reason I enjoyed this book at all was because I approached it not as a fun novel to read for relaxation, but as an intellectual challenge, a problem to be solved. I wrote summaries, I asked questions. The slightest, most irrelevant inconsistency warranted a note in the margin and a dog-eared page corner. But despite my perseverance, Cervantes' supposed genius largely eluded me. Having heard that it was at heart a very sad tale, I filled my notebook with naive ruminations about which part of the plot might turn out to be the 'sad bit'. Fascinated by the character of Sancho Panza, I underlined his every quotation, searching desperately for some hint of complexity, of charactorial depth. I found it not - every quotation seemed to prove that Sancho was exactly what he seemed to be: a stupid, greedy simpleton.

And yet, there were some things that stood out, questions which I kept coming back to and which seemed to be important. Why are there so many irrelevant stories woven into the plot? Why are the female characters as they are? Why is it so self-referential, so self-aware, in a way more similar to post-modernism than anything else I've read? And I started, gradually, as I thought about it, to realise that there was much more to this book than I had thought.

And then I went to the good old Melbourne University library and pulled out a stack of books of literary criticism, some of which turned out to be good enough to be read in their own right (not my usual opinion of literary crirticism). And I was swayed! When you read something as beautifully written as this, and true besides, can you not help but be moved, to tears and to hugs and to monuments to Cervantes' eternal genius?

"Like a butterfly from a chrysalis, Don Quixote emerges from his mediocre past with bright colours and a strange costume, ready to leave his friends and neighbours behind, ready to fly away. One day he looks around in his own backyared in his village and finds nothing that can compare with his readings. Surely the real world has sunk very low; certainly something must be done to lift it to a higher level. Don Quixote mounts his horse and goes forth. We know, as his readers, that he will fail time and time again in his quest for justice. But should he not have tried? Should no one have tried to bring a little justice, a little beauty, a little love to a sad world?"(Fighting Windmills: Encounters with Don Quixote, Duran and Rogg, 2006, p69)

And I realised also that in my obsessive scrutiny of Sancho's character, I had completely neglected to notice the extraordinary way that he, and also Don Quixote, grows and changes throughout the novel (though probably this was also due to the rather stilted, exam-interrupted way in which I read it). I also learned a lot of other things worthy of being known and recited, some of which I here relate:

In Cervantes' time (the late 1500's) there existed a genre of fiction known as the chivalric romance, a type of book in which heroes go off to do battle against giants and armies of thousands to win the love of their pure, fair, dull-as-ditchwater lady waiting in a tower at home, waving a white handkerchief out the window and crying dulcet tears of rosewater and lily petals into an ewer of pure crystal. Or whatever. Anyway, this type of book was the trashy romance of the day - it was immensely popular (in fact, Cervantes has two characters discuss the dismal state of literature and theatre for the entirety of two chapters, and in the margin of the copy I borrowed from the library someone has written in beautiful Victorian handwriting 'Cervantes is truly a writer for all ages!'), and essentially a hangover from the Medieval period. So Cervantes sets out to write a parody of this genre, presumably to reveal to the masses the error of their ways and encourage them to read something decent for once, for god's sake. This is no secret; he announces it proudly and rather big-headedly in the preface to Part I.

But the chivalric romance is not the only thing influencing Cervantes. Two other contemporary genres also make an appearance: that of the pastoral novel (shepherds, sheep, Arcadia, unspoiled wilderness, sheep, etc.) and that of the picaresque adventure story (danger, excitement, deprivation, courage, etc.). In Don Quixote, Cervantes combines these three different aesthetics and effectively reinvents them, the alterations he makes revealing his dissatisfaction with the way they represent life, and truth. Life is quite clearly none of these three genres, even though it may occasionally possess elements of each (which, I posit, is the answer to my first question: "why so many irrelevant stories?" Many of these asides are textbook examples of the chivalric romance, pastoral fantasy or the picaresque. I would like to think that the somewhat clumsy way they are interwoven with the main story is an indication of their inability to represent reality - in contrast to the hard-headed grit of the main plot, the failure is obvious). None of these genres, alone or even combined, is enough to describe life with any semblance of accuracy. Hence, Cervantes satirises them, and reveals their essential futility by having his main character attempt to live one. And Don Quixote is forced to abandon his illusions one by one by the hard reality that surrounds him, to the point of his renunciation at the very last. This, my friends, is tragedy at its finest.

Don Quixote was written in two parts, the first published in 1605 and the second in 1615, just a year before Cervantes' death. The difference between the two is extraordinary. Part I is an amusing farce with some interesting aspects; Part II is a masterpiece that anticipates centuries of literary endeavour. It is deeply psychological, it treats its female characters in an entirely new way, and it is devastatingly self-reflective. And many other things that I haven't mentioned.

For me while I was reading, the most interesting aspect of the book was its metafictional qualities. It is confusingly self-aware, with the opinions of the narrator (Cervantes, whose books are mentioned in the prose and who also appears as a character at one point), the supposed 'author' (Cid Hamet Benengali), and the unnamed translator (Cid Hamet was a Moor, so of course it was originally written in Arabic) all appearing in the course of the text. Furthermore, the story is temporarily interrupted because a part of the manuscript is apparently lost and only found by sheer luck, and at least one chapter is suspected by the translator to be apocryphal (which means, of course, that Cervantes put it in deliberately). In Part II, it is announced that Part I has already been published, and thus the other characters are aware of Don Quixote and his madness - a narrative decision with very interesting consequences. Moreover, it emerges that a fake Part II has been published in which Don Q and Sancho have been portrayed most unflatteringly (and, it must be said, unfairly). (Amazingly enough, as an unusually helpful footnote of Edith Grossman's informed me, this actually happened, and this aspect of Part II was written in part as a rebuke to the guy who did it. A better example of life imitating - or complementing - art I have never encountered.) All these things and, I'm sure, many more that I've forgotten draw attention in a most conspicuous way to the problematic nature of fiction, and of texts in general.

So why does Cervantes do this? Tempting as it is to assume his motives were the same as those of the post-modernists who were to use similar techniques over 350 years later, I'm not sure that this is the correct answer. Is it possible that one man, writing in a way that had never been seen before (with the possible exception of The Tale of Genji, written six centuries earlier and on the other side of the world) (um, by the way, Cervantes is widely credited with the invention of the novel, I should probably have mentioned that earlier), could be making the same points as people who were writing to challenge the traditionalism of a medium that had existed for over three hundred years, a medium invented by Cervantes himself? (the mind boggles.) Maybe. After all, many people (numbering among them Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Michel Foucault and Harold Bloom), claim Don Quixote to be a work of genius (or words to that effect; I'm leaning towards that opinion myself); or even the greatest novel ever written (I hesitate to make such a claim, but it may well be true). Nonetheless, I suspect it to be unlikely (that Cervantes' and the pomos had the same motives; can you even follow my argument with all the brackets I'm using?); in any case, it is much more likely that Cervantes had entirely different, but still valid, reasons for doing what he did. I have a few theories:

1. Just for fun! Although I personally never found Don Q to be a total laff-fest (the underlying poignancy was too strong to completely dismiss, though my subconscious certainly did its best) it is most certainly written in a light-hearted, even playful way. Maybe this is just his friendly way of messing with his readers' heads. If so, he certainly succeeded - four hundred years later, the critics still can't agree.

2. To reinforce the main theme of the book, which, in case you haven't picked it up already, is most pithily summed up here. As an example, we are told, practically simultaneously, that all Moors are liars, cheats, idol-worshippers, incapable of understanding rational argument, and prone to criminal levels of exaggeration, and that the Moorish author Cid Hamet Benengali is an honest and truthful chronicler (at one point, he also swears on his faith as a Catholic Christian, whatever that's supposed to mean). "Don't trust everything you read!" is Cervantes' perpetual refrain (Wikipedia deniers, behold your new Messiah). "The truth is less straightforward than you think!"

3. He is simply engaging in some healthy parody. Another helpful Edith Grossman footnote (two in the same book! I would never have believed it) informs me that telling the story as if from the point of view of a traslator who happened to find a manuscript was a common trope used in, you guessed it, chivalric romances. So maybe Cervantes was just exaggerating this trait to the point of farce.

4. He wanted to create a sense of distance between the characters and author, and by extension, change the way they are perceived by the reader. By presenting the story as a history (even if the reader knows that it isn't really), he in a sense releases the characters from the restrictions of fiction. They are no longer creations of the heat-oppressèd brain, but independent entities who have control over their fate.

5. An interesting theory that I read is that Cervantes, like all authors who lacked a wealthy patron, existed on rather precarious finances. Perhaps, Duran and Rogg suggest, he constantly draws attention to the presence, or existence, of an author as an appeal to the reader to give him some money or something. Whether this is conscious or unconscious, Duran and Rogg do not specify.

In short (finally! you declare), do I recommend that you read this book? The answer, dear reader, is YES. However, don't expect it to be a walk in the park (to use a Sancho-esque proverb). Maybe I'm just stupid or whatever, but a lot of people on goodreads seem to have given it four or five stars without appearing to have had any trouble at all. I don't get that. For me, it was hard work, and it took two and a half months. BUT: incredibly rewarding.

If you do choose to read it, think carefully about the translation. I mainly read an 1868 translation by Charles Jervas, which had wonderful engravings and was basically wonderful, and which I sort of cross-referenced with the Edith Grossman translation. The Grossman translation seems to be widely acknowledged as the best (it was just the one that happened to be in the bookshop, for me - also it had a prettier cover than the Penguin edition), but I don't like it nearly as much. It is, I can tell, highly accurate, but the Jervas translation is so much more fun! It's much more idiomatic, much more lively, and feels much less like reading a translation. I've heard the original 1755 Tobias Smollett translation is good for the same reason, and it's probably much easier to find than the Jervas. There are certainly good arguments for accurate, literal translations, but who gives. Also the Grossman has tonnes of footnotes, most of which are useless and highly irritating (who cares how many US cents a maravedi is equal to? It's screamingly obviously a unit of currency, and that is ALL I WANT OR NEED TO KNOW), but every now and then comes along one that is incredibly useful, like the ones I cited in this review.

(Excellent) References (that you might want to consider reading yourself because they are so good)

Fighting Windmills: Encounters with Don Quixote. Manuel Duran and Fay R. Rogg, 2006.

Beyond Fiction: the Recovery of the Feminine in the Novels of Cervantes. Ruth El Saffar

The Wit and Wisdom of Don Quixote de la Mancha. ed. Sieber, McGraw-Hill, 2005.

I apologise profusely for my bizarrely inconsistent recording of bibliographic details.

No comments: