Thursday, November 11, 2010

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I took nearly 3 long months to finish reading my first literary classic Don Quixote (buy it here: Don Quixote (Modern Library Classics)).  I would have taken much longer time to finish 1142 pages of literature and another 60 pages of preface, translator's note, life of Cervantes & very profound and meaningful introduction by Carlos Fuentes, thanks to snail paced quotidian traffic of Bangalore and commute to the damned ITPL, I could easily leaf through for minimum four hours everyday.   Am afraid to write anything at all about the book for it would be very unscholarly, but let me give it a shot.

The book starts off with Carlos Fuentes' introduction and I swear that's something not to be missed.  I would recommend it to read twice, before and after reading the actual book.  Carlos draws parallels among Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Illiad, Prince and many other works.  He has expressed his opinions and interpretations in the most heartfelt way, talking about art and love and history and folly and satire et al. I particularly liked the way he talks about art - Art gives life to what history killed, art gives voice to what history denied, silenced or persecuted, art brings truth to the lies of history.  Art will not reflect more reality unless it creates another reality.

Don Quixote (read Ki-ho-te) is a deranged old man whose view of the world is transmogrified by reading (locura y lectura) too many fictitious books on  chivalry.  He reckons himself to be a knight-errant and goes in search of adventures and describes himself as "The undoer of injustice, the righter of wrongs, the protector of damsels...".   He ventures out on his steed Rozinante with a squire named Sancho Panza (mounted on his ass, Dapple), a countryside simpleton with whom every reader falls in love for his naïveness and simplicity, whom the knight promises an island.  Many a times the reader feels that the uneducated squire is more sensible than his insane master, the knight.  To  non-compos-mentis Don Quixote, the windmills looks like giants, a wayside inn looks like castle, a herd of sheep seems to be an army, pilgrims look like robbers.  He fantasises about his never-seen, imaginary mistress Dulcinea del Toboso and attributes all his adventures to her.  He prides his victory and blame on enchanters when he's vanquished.

The book is made up of many adventures, anecdotes and adages.   Most times Don Quixote's adventures turn into pitiable misadventures, despite Sancho's heads-up and reluctance.   There are many characters in the book which the knight and the squire encounter during their errantry and most of them recounts their stories to the protagonists.  They come across people from all walks of life - counts and dukes, thugs and thieves, pilgrims and peasants, sailors and shepherds, barber and base born plebeians, musicians and magicians, beauteous & betrayed damsels  and attractive & audacious men.

The most beautiful part of the book is that in Volume 2, ingenuity of Cervantes I must say, Don Quixote the reader, is read.   His adventures in Volume 1 is written and published, he's now read by everybody in Spain and translated versions are published in Germany, Italy and other countries!  So in Volume 2 the readers can see that whomsoever they encounter during their errantry are acquainted of the knight, squire, the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso and all their adventures.  They also know that the company is heading to Saragossa and to defy to live up to the already published book Don Quixote changes his destination to Barcelona instead of Saragossa.   They also spend considerable amount of time with the duke and duchess who, knowing the madness of Don Quxiote get greatly entertained by the two by contriving numerous tricks and pranks like making Sancho a governor of an island or the famous Clavileno, the wooden horse prank or bringing Altisidora back to life by subjecting Sancho to corporal mortification.

In volume 2 one can see a great change in Sancho's demeanor and cognisance by his master's influence,  he starts using adages and proverbs as frequently as he breaths, always confounded by his knight for that.  You can see Sancho's onslaught of proverbs in the small passage below:

"The pismire found wings to her sorrow...there's as good bread baked here as in France; and by night all cats are gray and sure the man his lot may rue who has not broke his fast by two; between man and man the maw cannot differ a span; and as the saying is, With hay or with straw we'll fill up the craw, the little birds of the field have Godfore their steward and shield; four yards of course Cuenca stuff are warmer than as much of fine Segovia serge; when we leave this world and are laid in the ground, the Lord goes in as narrow a path as his labourer; and the pope's body takes up no more room than the sexton's; for, though the one be higher than the other, when we go to the pit, we must lie snug, and make it fit; or we shall be obliged to to find room, though scanty is the tomb; and so good night...the devil skulks behind the cross, it is not all gold that glitters; and that from his oxen, his yokes and his ploughs, Bamba the husbandman was raised to throne of Spain; and that from his riches, pastime and embroidery, Rodrorigo was taken to be devoured by serpents, if the rhimes of old ballads do not lie."

In the end Don Quxiote is vanquished by the knight of the moon and as per the terms Don Quixote gives up his knight-errantry for one year and returns to his house.  He suffers from ill-health and returns to sanity realizing that knight-errantry was all fantasy, he makes his will and dies sane.

The book contains long discourses on art, literature and theater, education, family life, virtue and chastity, pen vs. sword and knight-errantry.   Tobias Smollett's language is beautiful and for a newbie like me who's used to read simpler books, Don Quixote was slightly tougher book to read.  I had to keep the dictionary along with me to completely comprehend.   What prompted me to choose this book to read was my visit to Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico, wherein I had seen Don Quixote's imaginary portraits by Picasso (at the top of this article) and models made by local artists.  Its the most entertaining book I've read, I still remember I was laughing out loud at some of Sacho's fooleries and Don Quxiote's fantasies. I would definitely recommend this book to those interested in classics, I've got the book, buzz me if you want to borrow.   John Ormsby's translated version is available here.  Complete list of characters in Don Quxiote novel is here.
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