Don Quixote by Cervantes

A review of Spain’s seminal work of literature

By Duncan Rhodes

We join Spain’s most celebrated knight for some windmill tilting and a duel on Barceloneta beach…

Few modern readers would call Miguel de Cervantes‘ masterpiece a page-turner, and this bookworm in particular wouldn’t have minded too much if a rather ruthless editor was given the chance to pare this novel down to size (cry ‘philistine’ if you will!). Its extraordinary – some would say unnecessary – length aside, there’s certainly no denying the genius of Cervantes and the huge impact that Don Quixote, his crowning glory, has had on the world of literature.

The story concerns the eponymous Don Quixote, a self-styled ‘knight errant’ who, after reading one too many books about Sir Lancelot and co., decides to champion the lost art of chivalry and take it upon himself to right the world’s wrongs like a modern-day Amaudis of Gaul. Equipped with makeshift arms, his sorry steed, Rozinante, and his co-protagonist the superbly uncouth and opinionated squire, aka Sancho Panza, our hero sets up from La Mancha on his first sally. Shortly after being knighted at a roadside inn (which our deluded hero takes for a castle) by a waggish innkeeper (who is taken for a Lord) Don Quixote suffers from a roadside beating at the hands of some merchants who refuse to acknowledge the beauty of his imaginary mistress – the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso. The scene is set for much merriment.

When Don Quixote and Sancho set off on a second sally every turn is met with new adventure – almost always thanks to the hero’s overactive imagination, who happily jousts with windmills believing them to be giants and routs flocks of sheep sure they are invading Moors. In essence the book is a devious parody of medieval epic literature, as the madman and the simpleton traverse contemporary Spain, their experiences comically quite at odds with those of the knight errants of old, despite the best efforts of their imagination to render them as heroic adventures.

Whilst whole reams could and have been written about the manifold issues raised by this supremely modern, self-conscious book (indeed some have called Cervantes’ work the very first of the ‘modern novels’) we’ll be content to say that it’s simply a great – albeit lengthy – read. The interplay between Don Quixote and the hapless Sancho, with their highfalutin diction, is laugh out loud funny at times, and without doubt these two characters are two of the most memorable pair of clowns to ever grace a page.

Those waiting for the novel to reach Barcelona need to be especially patient… the two wanderers don’t arrive in Catalonia until the very end of their adventures, and – just to prove that things haven’t changed in 400 years – the first thing that happens to them is they are set upon by robbers. Thankfully the bandit-in-chief is a noble soul, and after they extricate themselves from that mess Don Quixote goes on to fight a fateful duel on Barceloneta beach. You’ll have to wade through the epic yourself if you want to find out what happens though, as we’re never ones to spoil an ending.

Interestingly, given that few real places are even referred to in the book, Barcelona receives a glowing tribute from Cervantes, via the voice of Don Quixote himself at the end of his final sally.

“I, therefore, openly repaired to Barcelona, that repository of politeness, that asylum of strangers, that hospital of the poor, that native place of gallantry, that avenging tribunal of the injured, that agreeable scene of unshaken friendship, unparalelled (sic) both in beauty and situation! and although certain adventures which there befel me did not much contribute to my satisfaction, but on the contrary, conduced to my unspeakable disquiet; I bear my fate without repining, and count myself happy in having seen that celebrated place.”

(Taken from the medieval English of Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote).

Indeed whatever misfortunes may or may not befall you in Barcelona, there are few indeed who come to the crown city of Catalonia and leave without similar sentiments in mind! Possibly less pompously expressed.

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