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25.8.21 Don and Sancho

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Honoré Daumier (1808–1879). Credit: Artstor
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Honoré Daumier (1808–1879). Credit: Artstor

Between 1605 and 1615 Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote was published in Madrid, and it’s become one of the world’s most famous novels. It tells of the adventures of a squire named Don Quixote – by turns mad, hapless, hilarious and brave – and his sidekick Sancho Panza. Don Quixote has read so many tales of chivalry that the boundaries between fact and fiction have blurred; he believes himself to be a knight-errant, destined to defend the poor and needy and to win a lady’s hand in high romance. Among many other things, then, the novel is a celebration of readers and reading: the reason for Don Quixote’s affliction is simply that ‘the brilliance of the prose and all that intricate language’, we are told in John Rutherford’s translation, ‘seemed a treasure to him.’ The novel is much indebted to earlier European literature both high and low, not to mention the Islamic heritage of the Iberian peninsula, as well as the classics of Greece and Rome. What’s nice about Cervantes’ debt to the classics, however, is the lightness and irreverence with which he treats them. They are quoted and misquoted in equal measure, glanced at, refashioned, and never put on a pedestal. We get random mentions of Virgil’s will, Perseus’ labyrinth, and songs and sonnets that namecheck Palinurus, Pyramus, and Thisbe. In the prologue to Part 1 Cervantes nervously confides to a friend that his novel doesn’t have the kind of learned references his readers expect. The friend’s advice? Stick in a few bits of Latin that you can easily look up and ‘you’ll be taken for a scholar’.

Like many works of art Cervantes’ novel has been claimed by politicians and institutions as an beacon of European culture. But as Tariq Ali points out, Don Quixote is a quietly subversive work, showing us the diversity of the Iberian peninsula and its heritage (Jewish and Islamic as well as Christian) at the time he was writing, its characters offering coded critiques of the direction in which Spain was headed (converts from Judaism and Islam – conversos and moriscos respectively – had endured increasing and deadly persecution through the sixteenth century; Phillip III began expelling moriscos from Spain in 1609). Reading Ali’s piece I was reminded of Arundhati Roy’s lecture The Graveyard Talks Back, in which, with typical fire, she speaks up for the ability of fiction to keep things complicated in a world where powerful forces want to simplify and divide. She’s speaking about the present, in India and elsewhere, but she could just as well be speaking about Spain in 1605. ‘Hope lies’, she notes, ‘in texts that can accommodate and keep live our intricacy, our complexity, and our density, against the onslaught of the terrifying, sweeping simplifications of fascism. As they barrel towards us, speeding down their straight, smooth highway, we greet them with our beehive, our maze. We keep our complicated world, with all its seems exposed, alive in our writing.’ Useful words, it seems to me, for readers, writers, and teachers alike, and ones that could apply to any well-crafted story, whether an old classic or the latest best-seller.

Here’s a moment from the end of Don Quixote that made me laugh. Don and Sancho have seen themselves and their adventures depicted on a painted wall-hanging, which allows Don Quixote a moment to reflect upon what might have been. For those of you who are readers of Virgil, Cervantes is parodying the moment in book one of the Aeneid when Aeneas and Achates come upon the mural in Carthage displaying the story of the Trojan War (Book 1, lines 444–493).

They dismounted at an inn, which Don Quixote recognized as such and not as a castle with its deep moat, towers, portcullises and drawbridge; because now that he’d been defeated his judgement on all subjects was sounder, as will be shown. He was lodged in a ground-floor room where in place of leather hangings there were old painted cloths of the sort common in villages. On one of them some clumsy hand had painted the abduction of Helen, at the moment when the audacious guest carried her off from Menelaus, and on another was the story of Dido and Aeneas, she on a high tower, apparently signalling with half a sheet to the fugitive guest who was escaping across the sea in a frigate or a brigantine. Don Quixote noted that Helen wasn’t too sorry to be stolen away, because she was laughing to herself on the sly, but the lovely Dido was shedding tears the size of walnuts. As he looked at the paintings he said: ‘These two ladies were most unfortunate not to have been born in the present age, and I am even more unfortunate not to have been born in theirs; had I confronted these gentlemen, neither would Troy have been burned nor Carthage destroyed, because by my simply killing Paris all these calamities would have been avoided.’ ‘I bet’, said Sancho, ‘that before long there won’t be a single eating-house or roadside inn or hostelry or barber’s shop, where there isn’t a painting of the story of our deeds. But I’d like it to be done by a better artist than the one who painted these.’

Further Reading

  • Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by J. Rutherford (London: Penguin Classics, 2003); the final quotation above I have slightly edited.
  • Ali, T. 2021. ‘Winged Words’, The London Review of Books vol. 43 no. 12, 17 June 2021, available here.
  • Roy, A. 2020. ‘The Graveyard Talks Back: Fiction in the Time of Fake News’, in Azadi: Freedom, Fascism, Fiction (London: Penguin), pp. 150–195.