Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote de la Mancha in 1605, and it was pretty much an overnight success. By 1612, it had already been translated into French, German, English, and Italian and spawned many bootleg counterfeits. Ten years after the first publication, in 1615, Cervantes published the sequel (because why not?), although today, these two parts are usually published as a single unit.
That strategy makes this book intimidatingly long. I’ve been listening to it in the car, and it’s 37 hours (by comparison, the copy of Moby Dick I listened to was 21 hours). I’m currently taking a short break between the first and the second parts, but I don’t think it makes sense to wait until I finish the entire thing before sharing some thoughts. For one thing, Wikipedia tells me that there’s a definite tone shift in the second part. They really do sound like two distinct novels.
The first book lasted until the end of CD 14. Unfortunately, all the stuff you’ve heard about–tilting at windmills, fighting the monks and merchants, the great sheep slaughter, the barber’s basin on the head–all pretty much happen within the first two discs. That leaves 12 more CDs filled with the parts you haven’t heard about. And do you want to know why? It’s because the narrative really slows down after that.
As a reader, you start to understand what you’re in for when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza take a rest with a bunch of goatherds and shepherds. These pastoral staples sing songs about their unrequited loves and tell a long story about a beautiful shepherdess who had the nerve to not be interested in some guy who then killed himself. They all feel so terrible about that fact that they attend this guy’s funeral and read aloud some of his chivalric poetry. Then the shepherdess shows up and gives a speech about how she has no obligation to love someone just because he loves her, and she’s doing perfectly well on her own, thank you very much, and then she hides and the reader doesn’t hear anything more about her. But that alone makes her the coolest female character in the entire book by a long margin.
I can’t really even talk about Dorothea and Lucinda. I just… whatever.
There’s a lot more wandering around and encountering people like this, but the whole thing really goes off the track around the time Cardino is introduced. The plot from there on is too complicated and silly to explain here, but take my word that it’s very slow and rather non-nonsensical, and it delves into the sort of ridiculous “fancy meeting you here” coincidences that Doctor Zhivago so relied upon.
The one part I just couldn’t believe was happening (and sat through in the same sort of awe you might watch a terrible movie with) began when Don Quixote goes into another room for a nap, and the remaining characters all agree to read an entire other novel out loud. Cervantes was all like, “Hey, I heard you like novels, so I put a novel in your novel.” Pimped my novel. This sort of thing happens a lot throughout the last three quarters or so of the first part–other characters just hijack the narrative, and we have to listen to their long and unbelievable tales of woe.
Of course, this entire novel–from its structure to its topic to its characterization to its plotting–relies upon the chivalric novel tradition that was already going strong in Europe at the time. That’s not a field I have a lot of experience with, so I’m sure there are subtleties that I’m missing. Many of the (to me) less interesting parts reminded me of lesser Shakespeare comedies. That is, the plots are silly, the characters unrealistic, and everyone falls in love at the end. Also something like Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta opera, which I saw recently (thanks, Met HD!). I also have a passing knowledge of Renaissance poetry and prose thanks to my English degree, and that background also helped me place this in context. Even so, I don’t think I recognized a single title that the curate and barber pull off of Don Quixote’s shelves and burn (another long and detailed scene that doesn’t really translate too well to today). Without that familiarity, this would have been an even harder read than it was.
But, enough whining about what was boring and inaccessible. There were many good parts, especially near the beginning. In the prologue, for example, the author is bemoaning the fact that his novel doesn’t have enough important Latin phrases uttered by important people, and there’s no weighty bibliography to accompany it, as was the custom. Then his buddy comes by and tells him to fake it. Just copy a bibliography out of another book, he says, and make up all the Latin phrases and poetry that you’ll need! Only a bachelor of arts will argue with you, and who ever listens to them? I kind of loved that.
And Don Quixote is a pretty amazing character himself. His way of seeing the world, warping every detail to fit his fantasy, is simultaneously awe-inspiring and horrific. Sancho’s way of dealing with Don Quixote’s eccentricities emphasizes the idea that you don’t have to be considered crazy to mold what you experience to fit with your preconceived notions. We all do that everyday. Don Quixote’s “adventures” are really entertaining, and you’re rooting for him despite all the terrible things he brings upon himself, Sancho, and others because he’s just so confident about it.
The fact that it’s such a mockery of the existing literature of the day adds a wicked little gleam to Don Quixote. Cervantes revels in pointing out some of chivalric literature’s great pitfalls, even if he does fall into them himself. For example, Don Quixote insists that knights never pay for lodging or food or armor repair or anything of the sort because he’s never read of such a thing, to the great consternation of the innkeepers he encounters (which results in Sancho’s comedic epic “blanketing”). He also insists that knights don’t have to regularly eat or see to the calls of nature, but Cervantes focuses quite a bit on the unavoidability of these things. Don Quixote and Sancho piss and shit and bleed all over each other for various reasons, and at one point, Don Quixote vomits all over Sancho’s face. Yes, at points, Don Quixote reads like late-16th century “Jackass.”
But while the early part of the novel mocks the adventure-story part of the chivalric literature, the latter part focuses on mocking (sometimes too subtly for my attention span) the romantic parts. And that is so much more boring.
I’ve debated whether I should begin the second part or just be satisfied with the first; after all, there’s no one asking me to finish this. After reading the Wikipedia entry, I’ve decided to at least give it a try. The concept sounds pretty awful–noble people in Spain have read Part One and now trick Don Quixote into chivalric acts for their amusement–but the reader is promised fewer diversions and more focus on character and societal themes.
So, would I recommend Don Quixote, Part One? Only in one of two circumstances: 1. you just really want to give it a try, knowing it’s a challenge (I read Moby Dick and failed to read Les Miserables for this reason), or 2. you’re studying it in a class where you have the benefit of a teacher to curate related readings and to facilitate discussions. Since I don’t have the benefit a teacher, I plan to watch some movie versions and read some more of the Internet before delving into Part Two. (Also, major props to my public library for carrying these movies that I can’t find on Netflix!)
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