After I decided to move to Barcelona, Spain in order to study Spanish for a year I Bought a copy of Don Quixote in it’s original language. My intention in so doing was habitual, I enjoy reading the national literature of a country in the place it was produced. I learned that for this work, however, I was not up to the challenge. There was simply too much to see and all my free time was devoted to my young bride-to-be. Four years later I was anxious to re-read or really to start reading it in this fine edition that I got off eBay.
Now as any person with literary inclinations is sure to tell you, Don Quixote is often cited as the first modern novel and is also often named by writers as one of the best novels ever written. Though one may not have read the book, still one knows some of the details – a mad, older man considers himself a knight and then goes on a number of misadventures that includes battle with a windmill. The image of Quixote either with Sancho Panza is iconic, so much so that a good friend of mine even has a tattoo of them on their arm. These generalities aside, having just read the first part, I can understand why. Though with some reservations.
In a more conscious manner than Madame Bovary, Quixote is fixated upon literature. In his case it is not romance novels but tales of knight-errantry and the defunct even-at-the- time-the-book-was-written code of chivalry. Such books have, as those around him often say, warped his mind. This is not the limit of the role of literature in the novel – for throughout there are discussions between Don Quixote and other interlocutors on the values of chivalric literature. Don Quixote sees them as estimable, obviously, while those around him largely do not. They dislike them and it’s effect on him so much that at one point they burn a large portion of Quixote’s library.
One of the components of the book that I enjoyed was its use of multiple forms of writing. Be they letters or, as is more common, poetry and tales told in verse, the novel wends through a number of lives that Don Quixote touches and those that are literary productions. The last poem written by a shepherd that committed suicide over unrequited love, a didactic tale left at an inn by an old boarder the warns about the dangers of tempting virtue, and the tragic story of an offended lover wandering the countryside are just three of the many stories within the work. A majority of these tales of tragedy, however, lead to comedic – both in the telling of them as well as the improbable situations that emerge soon after their vocalization. Another literary element of the book that I liked is it’s meta-awareness. The character debate on what make a book meritorious in such a way that I felt as if Cervantes was laughing when writing it. Some of the lines within the presage purportedly written by the Censor for Spanish Books are hilarious.
For me the book really started to get going around 180 or so pages in. I was a little worried that the book was a paper version of Citizen Cane – something that is oft cited as an innovative stylistically but which has, to me, not aged well. Thankfully I was wrong. Shortly after this point the number of minor encounters introduced in this section starts to mesh together within the plot of Quixote and Panza. Characters that were thought to be passing figures take on a larger role, which allows for greater continuity as lacking them we have only the madmen Sancho Panza and Don Quixote bumping around aimlessly in misadventure. I also found the overwhelming number of quotes of chivalrous tales to be a bit overwhelming – but I can understand that at the time that it was printed his audience would be more informed of this. All in all I have so far enjoyed the book greatly and look forward to reading the second half.