It only took me two months of this new year to decide to get back to Don Quixote. I listened to it last year, and, after this podcast, I couldn’t resist any longer. I guess we all have our classic, that book we can read every year and never tire of reading.
I remember, reading The Moonstone, that the butler was always reading Robinson Crusoe. It was his bible. He opened it at random, and claimed he found the answers to his questions every time. It was hilarious.
Robinson Crusoe did the same with a real Bible. After all, even Agustin of Hipona tells us how at a time of crisis, he too opened the Scriptures and it seemed to give him right what he claimed converted him, (and we can’t prove or disprove if this was coincidence, or, -if we believe in it-, providence.) But I digress.
I’ve known those who cling to this conviction that, opening the bible at random, will provide with answers. I believe life and faith are more than a set of finite problems we could fix with just a simple fortuitous and casual turn of pages. That’s not to say that, when we are in the habit of searching the Scriptures, and listening to lessons being preached, it’s common we hear or come across just that which we needed, or what relate to us at that particular time.
Don Quixote is not my bible, but it’s surely a book of books, a book that speaks to my heart and mind. When I read or listen to it being read, there’s an immediate connection. As a reader, there’s something I must do, an active invitation to meet Cervantes at some point in the path of the story, (an invitation to find differences and similarities with other books, to discern the philosophy of life it holds, to interact with it, laughing, crying, shaking my head in disbelief.) But to want to do this, one has to have a previous bond with the book that cannot be forced but that depends on a combination of factors. That’s exactly why we all have different classics, and they may change or evolve as we add reading miles to our life.
I could never guess or explain all those factors that make a classic ready for us, or us ready for a classic, but I can identify some I recognize play a part in my case. One of them is language. There’s something in books in our mother tongue that establishes an inexplicable bond between reader and text. It won’t be something exclusive or absolutely necessary, but it is, nonetheless, very tied to another factor, which is the ability to perceive the humor. Maybe this is wrong or presumptuous, but I’m perceiving that many who speak highly of classics that others find much less than wonderful, talk about the humor, (explicit and/or subtle.) I won’t forget the excellent reviewer that perceived so much humor in the French edition of Madame Bovary. Or my friends who get all the funny and fun in Jane Austen. Maybe not all great works contain this element, -but maybe, if they are true tragicomic, they do.
And it’s possible that humor is what’s so difficult to translate. Cervantes, in the novel, tells us right away that the problem poetry faces, it’s that of loosing the rhyme when translated. (Notwithstanding, Don Quixote, in his library, had books in the original, and books of poetry in translation. I have not examined the chapter, (chapter 6), in detail, but if the books were in Italian in the original, or even in French, there’s a possibility, -with effort and talent, to render the translation respecting the rhyme.)
Another aside, this language barrier, (for thin we make it by learning other language or languages), made it impossible for me to connect with Fagles or Pope’s translations of Homer. Homer, I need him in Spanish. And poetry. I never fell in love with poetry until I came back to poetry in Spanish. From there, once that love took root, I can now branch into English poetry with a surer foot.
There’s that chapter in which Don Quixote fights with a Basque. If you know Spanish, or if you have ever heard a Basque speak what we call Spanish but they prefer to call Castilian, this chapter will bend you with laughter. To find an equivalence, it’d be a Scottish speaking in the middle of a very British book, or a British talking in a very American book. You get the idea. There’s also the nuances of Don Quixote’s speech. He talks different, -not only because he’s an educated man, but because he brings back the chivalresque language of knights, honor, rules, codes. He speaks with pomp, and he delights many who meet with him, (granted that he doesn’t engage in fighting them.) He is proof that, no matter how mad one is, you can reason anything you set your heart to justify and explain. (It’s so hilarious how Don Quixote finds an answer to all the questioning some, amused by his crazy ways, pose to him. When someone asks him how come such and such knight didn’t have a loved one, (since he claims all reputable knights have their maid), he promptly replies, “my man, one swallow doesn’t make summer!”)
Back to the podcast, and speaking of language, my favorite part is at the end, when the professor tells us all the English expressions we owe to the translation of Don Quixote and that didn’t exist before,
(the sky is the limit, thanks for nothing, a finger in every pie, a wild goose chase, mind your own business, think before you speak, forgive and forget, I smell a rat, I’m going to turn over a new leaf, haves and have nots, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the pot calling the kettle black, and you ain’t seen nothing yet.)
Even if Don Quixote is not your classic, the podcast professor said how it’s very accessible. Unlike erudite Dante, (whose genius is not under question), one doesn’t need to possess a lot of references or knowledge of previous literature and history to enjoy the book and laugh a lot. Like many formidable classics, (I’m thinking about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, and The Wind in the Willows), they are written in layers, and everybody gets something, -some more, some less, but all according to that which they are ready to enjoy. There’s no feeling of missing something.
While not missing anything that could make the reading experience a total bore, it could be such if assigned, if there’s no overlap between our universe and Don Quijote’s, if our timing is wrong.
One of the most daunting attributes of this book, that keeps many at bay distance, it’s the size. The size is part of its beauty, and the biggest deterrent. If there’s no motivation or desire, the needed time commitment will be hard to find. If the chapters are not refreshing and exhilarating, we enter each new one with fatigue and desperation. Pleasure turns into duty or disinterest.
In my case, this third time, I’m laughing in less obvious parts. Some familiarity with the big boulders, is making me notice smaller rocks. I’m convinced that, in years to come, I’ll keep finding more and more pebbles. What pebbles?, jewels strung in the path of a book larger than life.
I can talk for long about the chapter when the priest and barber are choosing what books to burn, and which ones to keep. The bad books, Inquisition fashion like, they are burning, the good ones they are keeping, (and their criteria is hilarious, completely biased to what they like and what they want to indulge in), and those they don’t know yet, they leave in a pit, as Joseph was left by his brothers. Their talk on the value and effects of poetry, chivalry books, on the changes in art, translation, and their opinion of the very own Cervantes as a writer, is profound but uninhibited. Truth and specially fault, are well perceived when others behave at ease, -and the barber and priest are surely comfortable and enjoying their roles as censors and judges. We listen, like a fly on the wall, laugh and learn.
I just finished Marcela, the shepherdess’s chapter, that ends with such an intrepid speech on women by a woman, (what it means to be beautiful, or not, to be loved, to correspond, to want to be independent, the frustration of being seen as an object of men’s desire.) If the word feminism weren’t as full of connotations that run in opposite directions, I’d be tempted to call her speech a feminist one. But I prefer to say that, among numerous qualities, (and sadly a few salient and ugly biases), women in Don Quixote, (as much as those from social classes who, before him, had never had any importance in books or in real life -see Sancho), have, like the podcast commentator said, “microphone time”.)
Whether this is your classic or not, if, and only if, you find yourself in the right frame of mind to read it, you won’t regret giving this book a chance.