Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review - Don Quixote

Often called the most influential work of Spanish literature, Don Quixote is another classic novel that I've always meant to read but never made the time. Nearly two decades ago while living in a Spanish speaking country, I picked up a Spanish copy of Don Quixote with the plan to read the book as a way to reinforce my language studies. At that time I only made it through about 30 pages. Interestingly, I felt like I had read a sizable portion of the overall book. The copy I had purchased was only about 130 pages so I figured I'd read about one-fourth and promised myself that I'd eventually go back and finish. What I didn't know was that the Spanish copy I had purchased had been very significantly abridged and summarized and was not a true representation of the overall heft of this story. I recently picked up an English copy and found it weighing in at just under 1000 pages of text with another 50 or so pages of end notes and about 20 "roman numeral" pages of introduction prior to the story. I was shocked and at that point decided that I'd do better to tackle the book in English rather than returning to the Spanish knowing that it would take me at least double or triple the effort to read that many pages in Spanish given the slightly antiquated language and abundance of unfamiliar terminology.

So I dove headlong into reading Don Quixote. I found out that the English volume contained two "Parts." Evidently the first part was published by Cervantes in 1605 and the second part was published as a sequel 10 years later in 1615. Apparently about 8 or 9 years after the successful publication of the book, an unidentified author wrote and released an unapproved sequel to the story. This anonymous author directly insulted Cervantes in the text and blatantly modified the character, behavior and motivations of the central characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. It's unclear exactly when Cervantes started writing his official sequel but he was definitely spurred on by this derogatory piece of literature defaming his own story. In the official "Part 2" of Don Quixote we have some very over-the-top meta fiction in which all of the characters are familiar with the first official book as well as the spurious unauthorized sequel. There are numerous sequences of dialog between characters where they discuss the unauthorized book and condemn it as slanderous drivel. Don Quixote is especially offended and wants to do all he can to make the world know of the false nature of this second book and the true nature of himself and his adventures.

As is likely the case of most readers approaching Don Quixote, I didn't know a lot of the details of the overall story. Naturally I'd heard about the "tilting at windmills" scene through countless allusions elsewhere. And I've long been a fan of the musical "Man of La Mancha" and so I knew some general story aspects from that as well. Certainly not enough to know the entire 1000 page story but I knew that Don Quixote was a man who read a lot of fantastic literature about knights and chivalry and somehow got it into his head that not only were all the stories real but that he was called by divine right to be one of these knights and to ride into the world righting wrongs and fighting for justice. He has sworn his heart to the lovely Dulcinea, also a figment of his troubled mind…a conglomeration of a real woman he knows and a fantasy maiden he idealizes. He takes his friend and neighbor Sancho Panza as squire and the two of them set out into the world looking like the most pathetic knight and squire you can imagine.

Most of the story in Part One focuses on a wide variety of adventures showcasing just how entrenched Don Quixote is in his own personal fantasy as well as how truly inept he is at being a knight. Still, through a large amount of luck and with a large amount of mocking and derision, he manages to come off victorious in a number of very strange situations. He is convinced that an evil enchanter is working to block his way and thus when things do go wrong for one reason or another or when his eyesight drifts closer to reality than fantasy, Don Quixote is quick to excuse any glimpses of reality as evidence of interference from this vile enchanter. In the meantime, Sancho Panza sees the world clearly but rides along very loyally beside his friend and master in the hope of obtaining some part of the fortune. As the story went on I tried to decide just how far Sancho was drawn into the fantasy of Don Quixote. Sancho could certainly see the world for what it was and he ended up getting some bad scrapes and beatings as a result of his master's behavior. And yet he wandered along through the adventures in the hope of some reward. I think he partly believed Don Quixote's madness as truth but part of him also acknowledged that Don Quixote was likely a little bit crazy. In which case what does that say about why Sancho sticks around? He constantly says it's because he hopes to gain fortune and become governor of an island, but I wonder if there is a part of him who knows Don Quixote is crazy and he sticks around in an effort to help protect him or at least be comfort to him.

As Part One goes on, friends and family from Don Quixote's village come up with a variety of plans to try and bring Don Quixote home and to cure him of his madness. These plans end up just as zany and outrageous as some of Don Quixote's "normal" adventures. In the end, they finally do manage to bring him home for some time so he can rest and heal after many tribulations. But he does eventually sally forth again and thus begins Part Two.

As I mentioned above, Part Two has a lot of meta-fictional elements in that it seems that the larger part of the world has already read Part One and is already very aware of who Don Quixote is and what he is doing. Even though Part One made it rather clear that Don Quixote didn't have all of his wits about him, some of the reading public treat him as a true knight errant and are overjoyed to meet him and hear about his ongoing adventures. More frequently however, the people who have read his story know and understand that he is a little off-kilter and they decide to take advantage of both he and Sancho. They treat them as though they truly are knight and squire and they set up fantastic adventures for them all for the purpose of entertaining onlookers who are in on the joke. Even though the scenes often get outrageously funny there is a tragic sense to them in that the central players in the scene are being grotesquely taken advantage of for the sake of amusement. That concept in itself seems like an interesting commentary on just what constitutes entertainment. It didn't seem quite as tragic to laugh at Don Quixote in part one when his fantasy and imagination got him in trouble. But in part two when he embarks on similar adventures prodded by people who know as much as the reader, it feels a little wrong somehow.

Part Two seems to focus a lot more on developing the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho in terms of a more philosophical ilk rather than the first part which made some various political and social commentary but seemed largely invested in having a rollicking adventure at the expense of a madman. I found that I liked some of the adventures and escapades of Part One more than the second part but overall I found Part Two more thoughtful and interesting. On the whole I felt like they made a wonderful counterpart to one another and should definitely be read together.

Overall I really enjoyed reading Don Quixote even though at times I felt very lost and a little bogged down. There are a lot of political, social and literary references throughout the book, some of which had endnotes for me to reference and others did not. There were many very wordy sections filled with commentary on life and virtue and the nature of everything under the sun. These segments usually worked to break the flow of reading for me and left me a little stuck on that section as I tried to digest what was being said and work it into the overall message. There were many great passages that were absolutely brilliant in terms of observation as well as just great turns-of-phrase.

Having finished the novel, I feel like I have completed a major achievement. And yet at the same time, I feel like I only barely scratched the surface of this book. There was just so much meat to be found in every chapter that I felt very overwhelmed and often just "plodded through" to make sure I was making progress. I would love to one day take a course devoted to studying this novel and dissecting some of the major themes and passages. I have no doubt that this book could fill an entire course or more and still leave plenty left untouched.

To those thinking about reading this book alone, don't be daunted by its length or content. It is definitely something that can be completed. At the same time I would suggest that if you have access to anybody with deeper insight into the text, it would certainly not go amiss to ask them four some suggestions and pointers to help direct your reading. I would have loved some outside insight to help guide me through different passages. For now, the book returns to my bookshelf. The story and characters will run through the back of my mind for years to come and I hope that someday I can take the book off the shelf and dive into deeper study of this remarkable work of art.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

seriously....for the first novel ever written, its pretty good...ha