Don Quijote - Miguel De Cervantes
After having spent a lifetime reading tales of chivalry, filled with dragons and heroes, sorcerers and damsels in distress, spells and witches, Don Quijote's brain is dried out. He no longer sees the difference between these tales and reality, and he decides that there is not enough chivalry left in this world, so he wants to go out and spend the rest of his life bringing right where there is wrong. His first deed brings him nothing but pain and he's brought home again, and while he recovers the priest and the barber of the village destroy all the Don's chivalric books, hoping that he will be cured if he no longer reads them. Alas, his body recovers but his mind does not, and after having convinced his gullible neighbor Sancho Panza to become his squire, he leaves his home once more to roam the land as the last knight-errand, and do good deeds whenever he can. The famous scene with the windmills is only the first of his adventures, which will need some 750 pages to be written down for you to read.
This book was a birthday-present from someone I care very much for. It was an answer to me talking about being wary of reading a "classic", afraid as I was that they would be dry or boring or difficult to read - that I'd be disappointed. Well, you cannot call Don Quijote a dry or boring book at all. Difficult to read? The edition I read (translated by Burton Raffel) stays pretty close to the original Spanish, creating long and winding phrases, meandering here and there before returning to their original subject. Not something to read while being half asleep, but then again Don Quijote deserves your full attention. And when you give it that attention it will reward you with one of the most funny stories there are, 750 pages of joy. A rare and delicate combination of pure slapstick, malicious pleasure, and very fine humour.
Of course there is the archetype of two opposite characters that double the pleasure with their interaction. Don Quijote, or "The Knight of the Sad Face" as Sancho names him, is long and thin, every inch a nobleman, while Sancho is the archetype of the peasant in words and knowledge, shorter and rounder as he is. Don Quijote is a crazy man, who sees castles where there are inns, princesses where there are farmer's daughters, and who is convinced magicians rule his life. Sancho is simply a very kind and gullible man, he accompanies Don Quijote on his travels because he's convinced that one day he'll become the king of one of the islands Don Quijote is about to conquer or receive for his deeds, and later because he simply loves the kind man Don Quijote is.
Is Don Quijote then a surreal comedy, with exaggerated events and a plot with holes big enough to drive a truck through - as Hollywood offers us so often? Oh no, on the contrary. Cruel as De Cervantes is in letting his protagonists suffer from all sorts of misfortune, he is also very kind to them in describing for us how they really are. And he's equally kind to the other characters, even if they are sometimes pretty mean to our unfortunate knight-errant. Soon, very soon, one feels affection for the characters, alive as they very much become. The story is partly a satire, partly a warning against make-belief books - one could draw a parallel with today's romance fiction - but it is also written in a way that makes you forget this all "happened" 400 years ago, bringing the surroundings and the people very much to life. Even the events, silly as they sometimes are, are told as if it was by a witness that truly believed what he saw.
Does this book deserve your time and effort? I believe it does. Not because it's a classic, but because you'll notice that time flew while you had a great time reading it.
Miguel De Cervantes
© Jim Bella 2002-2005