The creator of Don Quixote died 400 years ago today in Madrid, a day before Shakespeare (or perhaps the same day, or maybe 10 days before – it depends on your calendar). All Spain celebrates the Don’s anniversary publications of Part I and the much more laboured but somehow better Part II; we expect today will effectively be a National Holiday in Spain, although perhaps we won’t be able to tell. In October 1947 there were special celebrations to mark his 400th birthday – a nation that venerates its geniuses might have a deplorable GNP but still be worthwhile. We expect a delegation to attend the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians (where he rests) and demand the right to dig up anything that looks like a literary bone.
Cervantes was, in turn, a chamberlain to a Cardinal; a soldier (he fought at the famous Battle of Lepanto (1571) under Don Juan against the Ottoman galley forces); a slave, in Algiers after capture by pirates; after a ransom was paid and he returned to Spain, a petty bureaucrat; a jailbird, having had a stint in debtor’s prison over some messy accounts; and, finally, the world’s first famous novelist. His own personal ascent of literary Parnassus was burdensome (writing did not come easily) and his famed sense of humour has dated almost totally, but then, his place is secure and there are no deadlines or bills to meet. As Miguel de Cervantes wrote, near the end:
“Farewell to jesting, farewell!”