Cervantes and the coming of modern times.
May 10, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 33 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
DON QUIXOTE is the world's most famous madman--or, at least, the most famous madman who everyone can agree was definitely mad. And one thing his example seems to prove is that much, perhaps too much, of our fate depends on the books we read and how we read them: Ingested without precaution, even the stories of knightly adventures with which Don Quixote was besotted are as destructive of sound thinking as repeated blows to the head.
Of course, that opens another question: What are we to make of the book that points out this fact about books? Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote is a funny, occasionally hilarious, book. Yet this is comedy of the utmost seriousness: The laughs are played for the highest stakes. Not even Shakespeare's greatest comedies possess Cervantes's commanding ambition. He is out to re-map the known world and is not bashful about pointing out where his most illustrious predecessors have gone wrong. The recent--and excellent-- translation by Edith Grossman provides the opportunity for the general reader to return to Don Quixote and think again about Cervantes.
Daft and ridiculous as Don Quixote is in his untimely vocation of knight-errantry, Cervantes for his own part cut a noble and dashing figure, at least as a young man. The eighteenth-century novelist Tobias Smollett, whose translation of Don Quixote remains supreme for brio and dark sparkle, writes that Cervantes "had a turn for chivalry: his life was a chain of extraordinary adventures, his temper was altogether heroic, and all his actions were, without doubt, influenced by the most romantic notions of honor."
The son of a poor doctor, Cervantes was born in 1547 in the Spanish town of Alcalá de Henares, and little is known of his early years. In 1571, as a soldier of the Holy League, he took part in the celebrated victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto; his taste of glory cost him his left hand, smashed by a shot from an arquebus. As Smollett puts it, with a peculiar mixture of reverence and what sounds to the sensitive twenty-first-century ear like malice, "This mutilation, which redounded so much to his honor, he has taken care to record on divers occasions; and, indeed, it is very natural to suppose his imagination would dwell upon such an adventure, as the favorite incident of his life."
In 1574 he was aboard a ship that fell prey to Barbary pirates, who sold him to a Moor, or perhaps a Greek renegade, in Algiers; he spent five-and-a-half years in slavery, under the regime of Hassan Aga, a tyrant so savage that even the Turks goggled at his inhumanity. Impalement was Hassan's favored trick, and Cervantes braced for an unpleasant end; yet he persisted in a course of brazen defiance, engineered a daring but unsuccessful plot to free himself and fourteen other Spanish captives, toughed out the aftermath, schemed at nothing less than the conquest of Algiers, barely eluded a grisly death on four occasions, and finally was released when a priest ransomed him for a thousand ducats.
Cervantes subsequently turned to more peaceable concerns: composing the Arcadian romance Galatea, writing some thirty plays, and establishing himself as the patriarch of the serious Spanish theater. Marriage brought financial responsibilities that his writing could not meet; he became a tax collector, got swindled, fell into debt, and wound up in prison. According to legend, Cervantes began to write Don Quixote while doing time; more likely, he waited until he got out to undertake his masterpiece. In any case, as Luigi Pirandello once suggested, the ignominy of this incarceration bred the mad fecklessness of Don Quixote, so unexpected from a writer who had been a sterling hero himself. It is a rare artistic master who does not pay dearly for his mastery, and from Cervantes's wretchedness blossomed a work of genius. The first part of Don Quixote appeared in 1605, the second ten years later. Cervantes died a famous man in 1616, on the same day as Shakespeare, who reputedly wrote a play based on an episode in Don Quixote.
AS THE STORY OPENS, Alonso Quixano is a gentleman in the village of La Mancha, where he is esteemed as the most learned and clever man in town; he owns a library of three hundred books, all tales of chivalry, which are as familiar to him as his own life. Merely to read of knightly exploits leaves him breathlessly unsatisfied, as though he were but half a man: Adventure and romance summon him. Taking lance in hand, clapping a visorless helmet on his head, he hops aboard his skeletal nag, Rocinante (which he imagines a handsome steed), and dedicates his life to the service of his beloved Dulcinea del Toboso, a stumpy peasant trull with a shrewish tongue and garlic on her breath (whom he imagines the fairest of damsels).