My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Read differently,” a student tells us during our Seminar discussion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. She explained how she had to constantly remind herself that she can’t read this work like any ordinary fiction, and its no coincidence that one of the first modern novels from the West isn’t like the others. At it’s very essence, Don Quixote is a true “novelty”, and reading Cervantes is an acrobatic art. The audience must constantly maintain equilibrium by keeping her distance from the text and preserving a wider perspective to a tale that doesn’t just unfold but contorts, skews, magnifies, and elongates. Welcome to Cervantes’ Funhouse.
Cervantes teaches us how to read and expertly flaunts different ways and means of telling stories:
“If you tell your story this way, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, ‘repeating everything you say two times, you will not finish in two days’ tell it in a continuous way, and speak like a man of understanding, or do not say anything at all.”
‘The way I’m telling it,’ responded Sancho, ‘is how tales are told in my village, and I don’t know any other way to tell it, and it isn’t right for your grace to ask me to do things in new ways.’
‘Tell it however you wish,’ responded Don Quixote. ‘Fate has willed that I cannot help listening to you, and so continue.’
Don Quixote’s story is more a journey through the mind of Cervantes, as we travel alongside our eponymous hero, his squire, Sancho Panza, and Quixote’s horse, Rocinante. We are as much at the mercy of Cervantes trickery as his haphazard band of fools. Just like Sancho Panza, we are tossed in a blanket, thrust to and fro at Cervantes’ whim and will, and he tells his tales in all sorts of ways from poems to songs, to stories within stories nestled in more stories. We must always step back from the text, never taking a word at its face value.
And, just to get the obvious out of the way, to clear up any confusions, yes, our hero is mad, but this shouldn’t stop us from admiring the architecture of the book, just because our tour guide is a lunatic. We must keep our eye on the puppet-master and carefully watch how he pulls the strings manipulating Don Quixote’s quest. If we observe closely, we’ll see how the knight errant’s delusions warp reality and how reality warps his delusions. Notice how every incident and each character that Quixote encounters is easily explained away and integrated into his convoluted fantasy. We may think Cervantes criticizes the Catholic zealots who led the Spanish Inquisition, but his work also transcends the current events of his time to call our attention to how we read and our cognitive processes. In an Age of Reason, Quixote seems pure nonsense, yet through his madness, we see Cervantes own hyper-rationality. Despite our hero’s wanderlust, he is constantly undermined by very real and present needs: he must relieve himself, he has to pay bills, and his squire and horse need rest. The body calls though the mind is untethered.
There are stories that enchant and work their magic on us as all good stories do, particularly toward the conclusion of Book I. Marcela, the Beauty who chooses to lives in the woods, feels cursed by the winsome gifts God’s graced her, so she defies society and scorns would-be lovers taking to the forest and mountains like one of Diana’s ladies-in-waiting. She makes a passionate declaration:
“I was born free, and in order to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside. The trees of these mountains are my companions, the clear waters of these streams my mirrors; I communicate my thoughts and my beauty to the trees and to the waters. I am a distant fire and a far-off sword.” …
Many of these characters are not wanting for the use of their own free-will. Each one has made a conscious decision to live her life and follow a certain path of her choice. They have used reason to argue and determine their mania.
Readers may also find themselves enrapt by the Captive Captain’s tale and his rescue of the alluring converted Muslim belle, Lela Zoriado. Here we have true knight-errantry complete with swash-buckling, damsels in distress, adventures at sea, and romances in faraway places. These stories serve their basic purpose, to entertain and fire the imagination.
Another student in our class discussion described Quixote as “walking anarchy.” His logic is illogic that disrupts and unsettles everyone else’s rhyme and reason. At its core, this is the purpose and magic of fiction, no? To mess with our heads, rattle our brains, and leave us discombobulated, unhinged from the reality we used to feel so safe and comfortable with, to the point of taking rationality and order for granted. Don Quixote demonstrates not only how to tell a story but how to live a story.