(Miguel De Cervantes) (1605 -15)
The man of La Mancha is somewhat akin to Walter Mitty, braver and with dementia. A proud and hapless dreamer, he is perhaps rather the inverse of Mitty (a modest man who dreamed of himself as doing great feats) in doing silly things and imagining them as great. Not just silly, mind – proud and uncanny – some of his acts verge on the psychotic.
Idealised as the first ‘modern’ novel, arguably post-modern, reading it today, you start to feel as mad as the faux knight after working through the artless courtly romances of his time. A minor noble ‘behaves his way to success’ (pace Dr Phil McGraw) and sadly regains sanity after a life of failure. The Don’s Rocinante is an exhausted, exhausting, one-trick pony, staggering through a myriad episodes on a brace + 1 of overlong road trips. After 900 pages, you need a blood transfusion.
The book reflects the cruelty abroad in Spain. After a pogram (circa 12C and early 13C), Jews ‘encouraged’ to become Christians (“conversos”) were suspected of backsliding or crypto-worship and that lovely couple, Ferdinand and Isabella, instituted the Inquisition to weed out the enemy within. By the time Cervantes was writing, the Moorish converts (“moriscos”) were being crushed as well. Cervantes’ novel tags the Holy Brotherhood as a bunch of thugs but steers clear of the Holy Office. The only ‘inquisition’ is the pleasant one in Quixote’s library.
But the book doesn’t play safe – it contains so many lush absurdities as to be subversive, its hero’s catalogue of failings funny in an arctic way. Pass by the dominating windmill and the wrecked puppet show and take one modest example – the Don sends Sancho into town to pass on his affection for Dulcinea but she can’t be found (unsurprisingly, as neither know what she looks like). Judged only by their actions, this famous pair are morons. But they win our weary attention because their hearts are in the right approximate place. In our enlightened age, we’d not put the knight errant in a cage, but get him and his squire on Thorazine. But they are probably not apt for such treatment because for them, reality is a placebo. They will not swallow it.
Quixote is better known than read. Part of this is due to its length, its veneration by previous generations, its powerful motifs, and the popular musical written in the 1960s, filmed in 1972 with Peter O’Toole, James Coco and Sophia Loren, a $12m flop filmed on “the most depressing sets that ever existed.” [O’Toole, quoted in The Hollywood Hall of Shame, Medved Bros. (1984)]
There was a 400th anniversary celebration, for Part I, in Spain (where the book is venerated) and doubtless it will be a good place to be again this year.
Cervantes died on April 22, 1616 (a day before or perhaps the same day as Shakespeare) and was believed buried at the crypt at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, Madrid. Humour is subjective and ephemeral but he would have laughed at the recent fuss over his alleged bones. “For blood is inherited but virtue acquired, and virtue has an intrinsic worth, which blood has not.”*[*J.M. Cohen translation]