Believe the hype, this book is that good. I’d resisted reading it over the years, and am glad I finally took the plunge with Grossman’s peerless translation. The world’s first modern novel, perhaps, but also its first collection of short stories? The basic premise is known to everyone– a befuddled gentleman who read too many books of chivalry believes himself to be a knight errant, and hits the road for adventures with his simpleminded squire, Sancho Panza, his trusty nag, Rocinante, and Panza’s grey donkey. “Our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.” Sancho is consumed with the idea that, as a reward for his service, Quixote will grant him the governorship of an island, and the word “insula” acts as a drumbeat throughout the 1000 pages. The infamous windmill scene takes place in Chapter VIII, though the phrase “tilting at windmills” is never used; from brief research, the phrase only appears in late 19th century (“tilting” being the equivalent of “jousting”). Quixote mistakes a flock of windmills to be giants he needs to do battle with, and attacks the sail of one at full force, which splinters his lance. This book is worthy of a much deeper review than is fitting for the blog, I can only marvel at some high level points below.
The perfect partnership of Quixote and Sancho. Quixote has moments of clear minded intelligence mixed with his chivalric madness, and Sancho speaks in gibberish proverbs yet has his own moments of clarity and intelligence. Quixote laughs at Sancho’s simple-mindedness, Sancho laughs at his master’s madness. “Look, Sancho… I say proverbs when they are appropriate, and when I say them they fit like rings on your fingers, but you drag them in by the hair, and pull them along, and do not guide them…”
Quixote explains further to the duke and duchess:
Sancho Panza is one of the most amusing squires who ever served a knight errant; at times his simpleness is so clever that deciding if he is simple or clever is a cause of no small pleasure; his slyness condemns him for a rogue, and his thoughtlessness confirms him as a simpleton; he doubts everything, and he believes everything; when I think that he is about to plunge headlong into foolishness, he comes out with the perceptions that raise him to the skies. In short, I would not trade him for any other squire even if I were given a city to do so…
An astonishing array of misadventures: windmills, waterstone, slashing the innkeeper’s wine skeins as he dreams he is fighting giants, the lion that won’t leave its cage, Sancho filling Q’s helmet with curds which Q then puts on his head to fight and curds stream through his beard, attacking flocks of sheep thinking they are armies, the infamous blanket tossing Sancho gets at the inn, the list goes on.
Cervantes tackles the thorny issue of translation throughout the book, “… if I find him here, speaking in some language not his own, I will have no respect for him at all; but if he speaks in his own language, I bow down to him;” and further, as he visits the Barcelona printer and questions his translating ability:
“And I shall be so bold as to swear,” said Don Quixote,” that your grace is not well-known in the world, which is always unwilling to reward rare talents and praiseworthy efforts. What abilities are lost there! What talents ignored! What virtues scorned! But despite all this, it seems to me that translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek to Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side; translating easy languages does not argue for either talent or eloquence, just as transcribing or copying from one paper to another does not argue for those qualities. And I do not wish to infer from this that the practice of translating is not deserving of praise, because a man might engage in worse things that bring him even less benefit.”
The meta dissection of how the books were written, through the pen of the Moorish Cide Hamete Benengeli (Arab Historian), but then also through the unnamed translator (Cervantes?) who despairs after reading part one and the rest remained missing until he discovered a book in Arabic at a market in Toledo. He finds a Moor to translate the books and papers into Castilian (“without taking away or adding anything to them”). Then the appearance of a fake Quixote to finish the tale, Cervantes does battle with this fake copy throughout Part Two, and the existence of Part One being widely read helps Quixote throughout Part Two as the duke and duchess regale and wine and dine and trick him for their amusement (even giving Sancho that “insula” to govern).
Grossman considers the many names of Sancho’s wife to be a problematic oversight on Cervantes part, but I see it as a continuation of the Spanish custom to have lengthy names that honor the matrilineal and patrilineal. So Juana Mari Teresa Gutierrez Panza works for me. There’s also a later note directly from Cervantes, “responded Juana Panza, which was the name of Sancho’s wife; they were not kin, but in La Mancha wives usually take their husbands’ family name.”
Cervantes’ wordplay, helpfully pointed out by Grossman in the footnotes, or incorporated in the translation itself. He sports, he jousts with words.
Wise advice: “The mouth without molars is like a mill without a millstone, and dentation is to be valued much more than diamonds.”
Natural remedies – rosemary leaves chewed and mixed with salt, applied to wound and bandaged, no other medicine needed; the health-giving balm (oil, wine, salt, rosemary) that Quixote famously drinks and vomits up.
The inclusion of human activities like peeing and pooping, vomiting, referred to discretely as “the thing no one can do for you.”
Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face.
“Mother of God!” said Sancho. “What’s happened? Surely this poor sinner is mortally wounded, for he’s vomiting blood from his mouth.”
But looking a little more closely, he realized by the color, taste, and smell that it was not blood but the balm from the cruet, which he had seen him drink, and he was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.
It appears that Shakespeare got his hands on a translated version of Don Quixote, he purportedly wrote a History of Cardenio that is now lost. Another great story within the story is that of The Novel of the Man Who Was Recklessly Curious – a friend asks his pal to attempt to woo his wife to test her fidelity.
Could there be a tiny smidgeon of gender equality at the Camacho wedding feast? “The cooks, male and female, numbered more than fifty, all of them devoted, diligent, and contented.”
Wherein SeÃ±or Canon seems to be Cervantes’ mouthpiece regarding the quality of work he produces:
“If all, or almost all, the plays that are popular now, imaginative works as well as historical ones, are known to be nonsense and without rhyme or reason, and despite this the mob hears them with pleasure and thinks of them and approves of them as good, when they are very far from being so, and the authors who compose them and the actors who perform them say they must be like this because that is just how the mob wants them, and no other way; the plays that have a design and follow the story as art demands appeal to a handful of discerning persons who understand them, while everyone else is incapable of comprehending their artistry; and since, as far as the authors and actors are concerned, it is better to earn a living with the crowd than a reputation with the elite, this is what would happen to my book after I had singed my eyebrows trying to keep the precepts I have mentioned and had become the tailor who wasn’t paid.”
Sancho’s wisdom about the Second Part as yet unwritten:
“The author’s interested in money and profit? I’d be surprised if he got any, because all he’ll do is rush rush rush, like a tailor on the night before a holiday, and work done in a hurry is never as perfect as it should be. Let this Moorish gentleman, or whatever he is, pay attention to what he’s doing; my master and I will give him such an abundance of adventures and so many different deeds that he’ll be able to write not just a second part, but a hundred more parts. No doubt about it, the good man must think we’re asleep here; well, just let him try to shoe us, and he’ll know if we’re lame or not.”
Dog-eared pages began early and often.