Fellow readers, how is everyone? I’m receiving emails from some of you who tell me they are enjoying this book profusely, which makes my heart sing. Many of you tell me you are laughing with it, some are sticking to the book they acquired, others are exploring and loving an audio version, comparing a bit and also finding out which is their preferred translation. (I can’t say one translation is better than other, but I can say that Ormsby’s translation is rich. The language can be off putting for those who don’t like older English, but Cervantes’s Spanish is also old, and rich, and some of us love that, -others prefer one of the more modern renderings-.)
To the book. I’m going to discuss chapters 1-8 of part I. Cervantes’s books ended up divided like this:
PART 1, chapters 1 – 8
PART 2, chapters 9 – 14
PART 3, chapters 15 – 27
PART 4, 28 – 52
I’m going to discuss here Book 1, Part 1, chapters 1-8
This book is so rich, and so fresh every time I read it, that we could discuss it to no end. Wait!, that’s what we are doing, aren’t we? I’m finding a lot of information in the notes, and while that’s important, I sometimes ignore the footnotes and just read. I don’t want to know about Don Quixote, I want to read Don Quixote. I’m specially eager to share the thoughts that the book stirs in me. I’ll add some bits and pieces here that helped me make sense of some parts, or that I believe can make you appreciate what’s going on. Other than that, this is our reading together experience, and I’d love for you to leave me a comment, albeit short, to know you are there too.
Don Quixote is introduced. There’s some things we can infer. He is not married. Doesn’t have children. He’s of noble birth but with little means. Poor, but rich in books. He’s an educated man. Mature in age. He’s a fan of knightly literature. And he’s determined to leave his life and started a new one as a knight. How many of you have left your life as you knew it and start anew? I have. Once I left to the States to never return to my life in Madrid. People told me I was crazy. I just had a dream. But mine was not based on a literature character. This day and age, many have left their luxurious urban lives, and moved to an uncertain life in the countryside with a few belongings. Anytime one decides to break with her life and start something completely different, we deem that person crazy.
The part where he’s preparing to leave was hilarious. He’s pretty isolated and, I believe, not in touch with reality outside the walls of his house. He has no self esteem issues. It’s go grand or stay home. He pictures himself as this knight the world is already missing. His makeshift armor is pitiful. His horse will become a dear animal to us, readers, but we can tell his prime years are gone, -such as his owner’s-.
Don Quixote knows the importance of language and form. To be a knight, you have to adopt their speech, have what they have, talk as they talk, and behave as they do. He even attempts a narration of the day he takes off with the pompous sounding language of those books he’s memorized, and with all the cliches and formulas.
From the beginning, we have Cervantes claiming to be one of the two authors, (the other will be Cide Hamete Berengeli), and claims Don Quixote as a true legend both of them are rendering or translating. In the book burning chapter, Cervante’s Galatea appears as a book they talk about.
Is Don Quixote a character taken from real life, a mad man who claims to be a knight, and who is featured in a world of fiction?, or is this the story of a real legendary knight who showed up in a pretend world copy of our own? In any case, it’s Cervantes license to unload everything he wanted to share with us. An invented medium to explore life’s questions in a unique combination of reality and fantasy. A versatile way to devise a novel that allows to include stories within the story, theories, rants, criticisms, homages, and all that interested the author. The skill of his amazing talent to narrate, and his innovative mastery of language, are as captivating today as 400 years ago.
I have not read any of those knightly books that dried up Don Quixote’s brain. But I’ve heard a professor say that Cervantes was the first who revolutionized both form and content. He wrote about the mundane. He ended knightly literature by eating it all up. Don Quixote busted the knight figure by becoming the first real knight which happens to be a real mad man.
Ortega, in his Meditations on Don Quixote, tells us how it’s not about what’s told, but how it’s told what makes it special. When the substance of literature becomes as low as our real, (and petty) happenings in life, I’m with Ortega, I’d detest to have it told in our common English in a casual conversation. Even if I were a great narrator, whenever I talk to others about what happens in the book, I manage to ruin it. The arresting beauty resides in the complex way in which Cervantes tells this story. That can only be accomplished in writing, and appreciated in reading, (or listening to it being read.)
Back to that moment in which Alonso Quijada decides to leave his home in search of adventure. La Mancha is a real place, yet it feels such a magical place when we read these pages. Even more since it is in the past, and even if some of the landscape is the same, the full scenario only exists in our imagination.
We can say Alonso Quesada (o Quijada) had a mid life crisis. Maybe he realized that, if he waited one minute longer, he won’t do anything with his life, or become anyone. At the same time, he’s been reading about those fascinating lives in books, filled with honor, recognition, and where the laws of nature are suspended. Like in a video game, we can come back to the screen with a new life. We earn powers in the process. There’s magic, and not only, there’s purpose. Knights live for their beloved dame, and they right the wrongs of the world. The good gets rewarded, and the bad gets punished. All the trials and tribulations of the knight, accomplish him something, they become his adventures, and they are sung and acclaimed in his days and are written for posterity. We enter the adventure in high spirits, like Don Quixote himself, which helps him to not dwell in how ill equipped he truly is.
Chapter 2 hits, and Don Quixote goes to an inn he perceives to be a castle. Interesting how people react to DQ. The innkeeper doesn’t see he’s mad right away. He’s worried about finding out if DQ has money or not. When he realizes he doesn’t, he decides to play DQ’s game to get what he wants, and tells him that knights have clean shirts, healing concoctions, AND money. DQ responds well to that logic, and he’ll try to get all that soon a la ‘garage sale’ style, -selling all he can possibly find around for not much-.
At the inn, -a castle for DQ-, he tries to get knighted with a proper ceremony. As a rookie, DQ is not well versed in how this ceremony takes place. It’s a bit like a wedding. I knew what weddings are supposed to accomplished, but there’s so much room to do this however one wants, that there’s that uncertainty about how to proceed.
The innkeeper, after feeding him a meager meal, finds a practical solution, and dismisses him to the patio, by the water place, telling him to do a vigil for his weapons. When a muleteer tries to use the water fountain, DQ charges at him with no mercy. At this point, the innkeeper needs to get rid of DQ, -he’s bad for his business-. He convinces him of a plan of action, and DQ follows it and believes it completely.
The women he sees at the inn are prostitutes, yet DQ addresses them as if they were ladies of noble birth and of moral conduct. They seem to be amused by his ‘strange talk’, and like the game of being rechristened by DQ. Once more, observe what DQ means and brings to different people, and the varied ways in which people relate and respond to him.
I’m not going to discuss chapter by chapter, but I’ll mention things in all of the ones covered here. Chapter 4 is sadder each time I come to the book. DQ sees this master hitting his servant, and feels compelled to know why that’s happening. When he hears the reasons, he firmly believes that the master needs to, not only stop the corporal punishment, but to pay him the wages that his servant says he owes him. DQ is very detached from reality. And he’s gullible. Masters saw themselves always right. Many of them considered their servants guilty of disobedience and truancy, (and some may have been), so even if they were mistreating their servants, they thought this to be right. It’s like life eventually saw people in either end of the stick. Servants became masters, or grew to have others under their care. The abuse was perpetuated, -that’s what I’m trying to say-.
DQ believes that an external intervention will make everlasting results, just because it appeals to those noble principles he believes people still live by, and that they may have forgotten. Cervantes is showing us his world by contrasting it to the utopia DQ sports. The servant has a short lived hope in what just happened. The master wasn’t fooled. This master didn’t try to make DQ understand, but, like the innkeeper, he plays DQ’s game, to get rid of him, and get back to his business with redoubled anger for having been exposed in his immorality.
DQ continues hitting others or getting beaten up. Some have deemed the book full of violence, and asked how is it we can laugh at this insane display. I’m of the different view that believes Cervantes’s world was a very violent place, and he wants to present us that tragic component along with the comic and inseparable side of life. Cervantes himself was the subject of much of that physical harshness. This is fiction, don’t forget. It’s the laughter we get when we watch Tom and Jerry, or Roadrunner splashing onto a road after falling from a high distance.
This is also a world of hit or get beaten. There’s the other encounter where the lad sees DQ on the floor, and takes advantage to beat him up. We can speculate he’s been on the receiving end of the stick, and when he sees DQ there, he seizes his probably first opportunity in life to administer punishment instead of receiving it.
A neighbor sees DQ in this pitiful condition. He calls him by his name, Quijada, but DQ responds he is Don Quixote. When challenged by the neighbor about his real identity, DQ says, “I know very well who I am.” Back at home, we see DQ has a niece, and friends who are important to the community, -barber, priest, professor; the hierarchy of life, clergy, academia, working class.- They are worried. They saw his progression into madness, but the niece failed to warn these men earlier about how feverish and delirious DQ was becoming as a consequence of reading too many chivalry books.
This is one of my favorite chapters. In it, I read for the first time what would become a very ingrained idea for most people, the impossibility of translating poetry. Thought that has been almost set in stone, with which I am not in full agreement. I believe Cervantes enjoyed writing this chapter. Perfect opportunity to talk about his thoughts on books, authors, genres, and his shot at literary criticism, -even of himself!-.
I chuckle every time they contemplate whether to burn a book or not, and they give the following for a reason, ‘but why!, I do love this one’. Also, notice that if we know that the son doesn’t inherit the sins of the father, he doesn’t inherit his merits either, (they say that when they save a book with a famous knight like Amadís de Gaula, but not that which features Amadís’s son, even if he’s a legitimate son.) They also speak about Cervantes being a friend, and thus not burning his book, Galatea, and how sand he did not conclude it. (Cervantes eventually wrote a second part). They even say how they are going to save some books but not let anyone read them, -good for me but not for others, :)-
They devise a great trick to keep DQ at home and away from the books. They build a wall at his library, and tell DQ when he finally ends his convalescence, that an enchanter must have made his books and full library disappear. DQ believes this. Hard as they try to keep him home, DQ prepares to leave again. This time with a squire, -as the innkeeper also told him knights should have-. He finds a common man, named Sancho, who also flees his home, wife, and children.
Have you ever wondered how is it that Sancho follows DQ without a doubt? He must be another man tired of his fate in life, eager to change it. He’s obviously burning to obtain money and position. He sees DQ as an educated man, in a better place in the social scale than himself, and capable of giving him all that DQ promises. Funny how when Sancho hears those crazy promises, his own greed makes him believe in them and follow him.
We don’t have to wait long to come to the ultra famous adventure, the windmills. DQ claims they are giants, Sancho is sure they are not, and DQ, as it’ll be a pattern, has an explanation as to why they are windmills, -enchantment!-, it must be the work of the same enchanter who took his books and removed his library.
There’s one more adventure before the first part ends. That with the Basque. This is quite hilarious and revealing. We see how Sancho is determined to get his share of all this, comes sun or rain.
The friars are peaceful, they tell DQ he’s in the wrong. The Basque is not intimidated by DQ, and doesn’t want to bulge. The ladies in the carriage are all witnessing this impromptu duel. And we are left at this cliffhanger. Cervantes has done it again!
Part II will force us into a delightful break before we know how this encounter ends.
Today I wrote a ton, next time it may just be a short paragraph!