Thursday, April 29, 2010

El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha

Don Quijote is one of the most important literary works of all time and the character for whom it is named is one of the four universally great literary figures, along with Faust, Hamlet and Don Juan. It is noteworthy that two of the four great literary characters are from Spain: Don Quijote and Don Juan. In my opinion, the liveliest English translation is by Walter Starkie, available via the link to Amazon to the left of this block of text.

What makes Don Quijote so great? Fair question. The novel's premise is that a certain gentleman, whose name is never quite clear, took up reading books of chivalry -- knights, damsels in distress, giants, dragons, magic potions -- you name it, all the fantasies and characters that inhabit that make-believe world. He would neglect all his duties just to read from sunset to sunrise, sell property just to buy the latest book of chivalry. The lack of sleep and the constant reading took a toll on his sanity. He ended up believing they were true and, more importantly, that he should take upon himself the duty of becoming a knight errant (a wandering knight), to right the wrongs of the world and gain for himself honor and glory.

But there's a big problem. Don Quijote's world doesn't operate by the rules of the books of chivalry. It's far more base, vile and corrupt -- a world in which a man's word is not his bond. A world like ours. A world that has unfortunately, always been. The character Don Quijote is the epitome of an idealist.

Parallels? Sure. Image if someone were to read Louis L'Amour novels about the American West and decide that what the USA needs is for a man to ride a horse into the city and right all the wrongs he sees, according to the "code" of the Old West! He wouldn't last an hour. The police would probably gun him down.

So, the novel is a satire. Cervantes explicitly states that he wrote it to combat the insanity of the constant flow of sequel upon sequel of the books of chivalry that were popular in the 1500s, beginning with Amadís de Gaula.

Don Quijote lasts for a thousand pages or more, depending on your edition's format. In it, you will also encounter parodies of pastoral novels, one of which is a defense of a woman's right to be... left alone to chose her own destiny. You will also be treated to scenes of life on the streets, as it were, imitations of that very Spanish sub-genre the picaresque. Don Quijote is worth every penny you'll spend to buy it and every moment you will savor in reading it. His adventures bring you to the delicate edge where what should be encounters what is and you wonder, with Don Quijote, "why should it not be as he sees?" Why indeed.

Is he crazy? Good question -- it's kept scholars busy for a long time. Is he a crazy man with moments of lucidity or a sane man with moments of insanity? What is the value of freedom? Virtue? What is worth fighting -- and dying -- for? What is patriotism? What is true piety? Why are people as they are? What kinds of people are there out there in the vast world? All these questions are encountered, seldom answered, but enacted in words of seldom encountered eloquence.

The novel Don Quijote is an encyclopedia of Humanism and an endless treasure that always seems to yield more with every reading.

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