A man on a quest

In the last post, I mentioned that I had been engrossed recently in Don Quixote. It's one of those books that I've had for a very long time, but never got round to reading. Why not? Well, for a start it's huge (the Tom Lathrop translation that I read weighs in at 800 pages. Other translations can be nearer 1000 pages, or even longer). It's old (the first volume was published in 1605 - the year of the Gunpowder Plot, the sequel in 1615) - surely the language is going to be tricky? And how much, after all, am I going to have in common with an eccentric Spanish nobleman of the early 17th century?

A lot of the first volume is comprised of little novellas, not all directly to do with the main plot - I had major problems with this in Pickwick Papers, surely this time it would be even worse? So there you have a great list of reasons why you shouldn't even attempt to start Don Quixote. 

Set against this though were several reasons why I, personally, should read it: two of my favourite authors loved the novel - Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, and it's a book about books, book-lovers, and the joy of reading. There was another reason too - it's one of the most brilliant books ever written, and is now well up on my favourite books ever list.

The novel centres around a Spanish gent of a certain age (think mid-life crisis). Full of the joys of reading novels about knight errants and their adventures, he sets out to become a knight errant himself and live the life. Accompanied by his ungainly horse, Rocinante (who only once makes it above a trot in all 800 pages), his down-to-earth servant, Sancho Panza, with his beloved donkey, a lady-love (who he's never met, but is sure is just perfect), and buckets of goodwill towards everyone, Alonso Quijano restyles himself as the knight, Don Quixote, determined to right wrongs, rescue damsels, and fight dragons, and sets out on an adventure across the plains of La Mancha.

The story itself is completely potty. Don Quixote is, without a doubt, mad; but his mixture of childlike innocence and his wonder in the world around him is adorable, within just a few pages he had become my new favourite fictional character ever. You just know that the world would be a much happier place if there were more Don Quixotes around. Where Sancho sees windmills, Quixote giants, marauding sheep become invading armies, and the plainest senorita a woman of beauty. He is old time courtesy personified. But if the first volume published in 1605 was charming, the second volume of 1615 is a giant leap forward in literature. What happened?

The 1605 volume was enormously popular. In less than a year there were three editions along with several pirated publications. Within seven years it would also be published in English and Italian translations. Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio, was based on an incident in Don Quixote; it was universally loved, but there was no sequel, although there was a sort of challenge at the end of the first volume encouraging other writers to continue the adventures of Don Quixote. Much to Cervantes' dismay in 1614 a follow-up to Don Quixote's adventures was published. Quixote fans were not impressed, and Cervantes pressed ahead with his own sequel which was published the following year.

In this second volume we are back in the firm hands of Cide Hamete Benengeli, the Moorish story-teller of the first installment. Don Quixote is horrified to discover that someone else has attempted to pass themselves off as him, and so turning away from the tournament of Zaragoza, where the fake DQ had adventures, he turns towards Barcelona, where his adventures finally come to an end.

Don Quixote is an immensely lovable book. Hilariously funny, witty, clever, but also heart-warming. Reading it is like receiving a warm hug across the centuries. Here are the roots of magical realism, of post-modernism, of the Holy Fool of Russian literature.

Most of all this is a truly good book, in the very best sense of the word. If everyone had the kindness and positivity of a Quixote, the commonsense of a Sancho Panza, the loyalty of his donkey, and the staying power of Rocinante - the world would be a much nicer place. A truly happy read.


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