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The impossible dream lives on

In a village in La Mancha whose name
I cannot recall, there lived
long ago a  country gentleman …

Thus begins Don Quixote, arguably the greatest single work of literature in human history. No book—with the exception of the Bible—is more widely read or often translated than the masterpiece of Miguel de Cervantes. In 2002, the book which is widely acclaimed as the world’s first modern novel was voted the greatest work of fiction of all time in a poll by the Norwegian Nobel Institute. The judges included 100 eminent writers from 54 countries, among them Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Milan Kundera, Carlos Fuentes and Nadine Gordimer. Don Quixote polled 50 per cent more votes than any other book, including the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Cervantes’ contemporary, Shakespeare.

No less an authority than Vladimir Nabokov summed up the legacy of the errant knight in the following terms, ‘He looms so wonderfully above the skyline of literature, a gaunt giant on a lean nag, that the book lives and will live through his sheer vitality … He stands for everything’.

William Faulkner undertook the monumental task of rereading the novel every year. The former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez is said to read a little of it every day. It acted as the muse for painters as diverse as Goya, Picasso and Dali.

This year, some 400 years after the first part of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quijote of La Mancha was first published in 1605, Cervantes’ picaresque tale is once again enjoying a revival, thanks in part to the 400th anniversary celebrations taking place in Spain.

Seemingly every bookshop across Spain is in danger of being overwhelmed by new editions of the work. Tourism in Castilla La Mancha—Spain’s central plateau and the home of Don Quixote—is booming, with visitors seeking windmills at which to tilt. And the appearance on Spanish television of the fantasy lifestyles of Spanish celebrities is frequently interspersed with more contemplative readings of Don Quixote, the ultimate and most lovable fantasist of all.

The secret to Don Quixote’s enduring appeal—it is at once popular with a mass readership yet has endured through the centuries as a seminal work in the canon of world literature—lies in Cervantes’ rare gift of blending in one character so many brilliant and earthy eccentricities with equally plentiful and elegant pearls of wisdom.

At times the story’s hero lectures his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, with words of universal application:
Do not let your own feelings blind you to other opinions, because most of the mistakes you make will not be reversible and even if they are, it will be at the cost of your reputation or of your purse.

Or, he is waxing lyrical on themes that are as unrespected now as they were in Cervantes’ time:

Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven bestowed on mankind; all the treasures bound within the earth nor covered by the sea can equal it; for liberty, as for honour, you can, and you should risk your life.

And yet, as if almost in the same breath, when Sancho becomes convinced that he is the ruler of a non-existent island, Don Quixote offers the following advice as to the central pillars of his rule: ‘Clip your fingernails, avoid onions and garlic and walk slowly’.

This combination of wisdom and absurdity is indeed central to Don Quixote’s charm. At the same time, it is in the storytelling, with all the power of the Arabian Nights, that Cervantes’ unequalled mastery of language truly resides.

Inspiration for the disastrous escapades which befall Don Quixote undoubtedly came from Cervantes’ own life—the writer was wanted for the murder of a royal architect, lost a left hand in battle in Italy, was imprisoned by corsairs in Algeria for five years, joined the Spanish Armada, ended up again in prison, this time in Spain, and died in poverty in 1616 (the year after he completed his masterpiece).

His creation, Don Quixote, begins life as the very ordinary Alonso Quijano. He is a true man of La Mancha, that unending and desolate plateau in central Spain with its rolling hills, scorching summers and bitterly cold winters spent in isolation. His journey commences in a village without name, although ten Spanish academics recently completed a two-year quest to follow the clues left by Cervantes and identified the knight’s starting point as the village of Villanueva de los Infantes, now home to 5839 inhabitants and a pretty town square, 225km south of Madrid.

Obsessed by tall tales of chivalry, Señor Quijano announces that he shall thereafter be considered a knight with the title of Don Quixote, whereupon he begins his quest to right wrongs and rescue the oppressed from distress.

Among Cervantes’ many achievements is his extraordinary evocation of the landscape through which his knight travels. With extraordinary skill and authenticity, Cervantes brings alive the mundane signposts of 16th-century Spain, landmarks taking shape as characters in an irresistible marriage of travelling and storytelling, making Don Quixote perhaps the first work of magical realism.

Windmills, which still stand sentinel above the plains of La Mancha, become ‘monstrous giants’ against whom battles must be fought in the name of honour. Roadside inns for weary travellers take on the character of enchanted castles. Flocks of sheep transmute into armies. Even the humble horse trough is mistaken by the lovable Don Quixote for a baptismal font.

The evocative and unrivalled brilliance of Cervantes’ pen in painting a vivid visual image, in transforming a real landscape into a canvas for utterly believable flights of fancy, is highlighted by the numerous failures—from Orson Welles to Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam—to faithfully recapture on film the genius humanity of Don Quixote and the territory which he traverses.

That Cervantes’ rendering of La Mancha was recognisable to the people who have inhabited the land since he described it is evident in the fact that, until recently, almost every inn across central Spain possessed a leather-bound copy of Don Quijote de la Mancha. At night, as travellers from all social strata gathered around a meal of manchego cheese, wine and the shepherd’s staple of breadcrumbs with grapes, those few who could read found the book pressed into their hands, urged to read to an eager audience, to offer entertainment to pass the long La Mancha nights.

But that it should be an ordinary person like ourselves—he bickers with Sancho as would an old married couple, dreams into existence Dulcinea to whom he swears undying love and fidelity, and travels on the faithful if faltering and bony old nag Rocinante—who is capable of such adventure, such escapism, such impossible dreams is what has ultimately made us love the deluded knight for so long.

Indeed, the Spanish writer Cesar Antonio Molina claims that ‘Quixote is like our Bible, a secular bible. And like the Bible it tells us a lot, how to behave, how to dream, how to love, how to be just. More than a book of adventures it is a book of wisdom. It shows us all our human defects in its mirror. And it is written by a loser, about a loser, yet both of them illustrious.’

Illan Stavans, Professor of Latin America and Latino Culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts and renowned Cervantes expert, similarly argues that the reason for the knight’s timeless resonance lies in the fact that he ‘moves across history, presenting different masks, and being appreciated—sometimes as a madman, sometimes as an idealist. He really transcends the circumstances into which he was born, or created’. More mischievously, he wonders if we love Don Quixote simply because we ‘adore the fact that the most enduring of literary characters is a madman’.

Added to these qualities to which we are drawn is Don Quixote’s innate goodness, a characteristic highlighted by Jan Morris, who says:

I accept his madness, but I believe it to be the madness of a Holy Fool. I am grateful for the delightful examples he gives us of fancy’s truth and reality’s delusions. And most of all I love his kindness—Don Quixote was never mean, never ungenerous, and suffered fools gladly.

Thus it is that this seemingly simple man, armed with nothing more than a trusty lance and an ancient shield, has, in the totality of his contradictions, come to represent a caricature of all who believe in miracles and dream of the impossible. He offers in equal measure hope and despair for those who would fight injustice but who find the path to a better world confusing, as it is beset by obstacles of the mind. He tilts at those who proudly possess pretensions to grandeur and at once mocks and celebrates the idealists among us. Don Quixote is a monument to absurdity, a hymn to the inspiration and futility of the romantic anti-hero.

Indeed, Don Quixote is humankind contained within a single character. Paul Donnelly, lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University, agrees: ‘Cervantes is the person who has in my view the most complete and sympathetic understanding of human nature.’

That it is the most widely read work of fiction in history does not mean that it is an easy book to read. Martin Amis once dismissed it as unreadable. Juan Victorio, Professor of Medieval Literature at Spain’s National Open University, says that ‘everyone has it on their bookshelves but not even a minority get through it’. At more than 1000 pages, it is indeed a daunting undertaking.

But as Spain celebrates 400 years of Don Quixote, the best piece of advice comes, somewhat improbably, from a politician. Spain’s Minister of Culture, Carmen Calvo, recently launched the celebrations with the words: ‘The most important tribute you can pay the book is to read it.’  

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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