The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel Cervantes is the most famous novel in the Spanish language. Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) wrote two volumes, the first 1605 and the latter 1615. Widely cited as the first ‘modern novel’ for its satirical and self-referential approach, Don Quixote follows the misadventures of a mad knight and his simpleminded squire in post-medieval Spain. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue.
Alonso Quixano is a middle-aged country gentleman in an unremarkable part of Spain. Retired, he spends his days reading chivalric romances – sensationalised tales of knights and damsels in vogue at the time. Then, after one book too many, an epiphany strikes. He should become a knight-errant too – and embark on a crusade to rid the world of evil.
Quixano adopts the more knightly name ‘Don Quixote’ and sets off on his quest, to the chagrin of his friends and family. The aged workhouse, Rocinante, is his steed and local peasant, Sancho Panza, his squire.
The problem is, Don Quixote lives in a world where knights-errant are a thing of the past. People brush off his old-fashioned speech and claims of virtue as curious at best and dangerous at worse. For fifty-two chapters, Don Quixote embarks on various misadventures that often do more harm than good. To the self-obsessed and gallant knight, inns are castles, prostitutes princesses and windmills giants. Panza, though recognising his master’s madness, follows anyway in the hopes of his promised governorship.
But while Don Quixote is insane, on matters unrelated to chivalry, he proves astute and wise. One of the book’s best passages is when he lectures Sancho Panza on the merits of a good governorship and the need to use proper speech. One does not ‘fart’ but ‘elucidates’.
The first instalment of Don Quixote became so popular that one Alonso Fernandez de Avellandela wrote a fraudulent sequel. While claiming to be authentic, it was, in truth, a poor work of fan-fiction. Most notably, Avendella reduced Panza from a nuanced spewer of proverbs to a one-dimensional oaf.
Catching wind of the fraudulent sequel, Cervantes (right) published the ‘true’ second volume in 1615. While retaining the original’s humour, it takes on a more modern and philosophical tone. The first book exists in-universe and Don Quixote meets people who have read the same book as the reader. He even addresses the fraudulent Avellandella sequel. No work of fiction had taken this metafictional approach before, earning the book its ‘modern’ reputation.
Twin ironies beset the story’s legacy. Cervantes satirised the chivalric romance, yet Don Quixote gave the genre a second wind. Cervantes despised Avellandella’s fake sequel, yet it is only known today because he addressed it.
Don Quixote is episodic. Each adventure is more or less self-contained, which is helpful because the book is over a thousand pages long. I read the Edith Grossman translation (2004) over a year – though apparently, each translation has its flavour and character. Of course, nothing can match the original Spanish. Across the Hispanophone world, students study Cervantes as English speakers do his contemporary, William Shakespeare. The English words quixotic and lothario, and the phrase ’tilting and windmills’ come from Cervantes.
Don Quixote is a marvellous work. Humour dates quickly, yet, Don Quixote is genuinely funny to this day – not an easy accomplishment for a book written four centuries ago.