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Don Quixote by John Rutherford

 “Then I have to say,” said Don Quixote, “that the author of my story was not a wise man, but some ignorant peasant, who blindly and without any criteria set out to write it, get out what to leave, as did Orbaneja, the painter from Úbeda, who replied when asked what he painted: “What to leave”.

Don Quixote, II, III

    In the prologue to the first part of Don Quixote, Cervantes says that the idea for the book came to him in prison. It is likely that he refers to his seclusion in Seville (1597-1598) due to his incompetence as a tax collector. It is not known whether he began to write while in prison or later. But it is clear that the work he had in mind was very different from the one he ended up producing. He was thinking of a short fiction similar to the Exemplary Novels, published in 1613. This is indicated by the fast pace and the short duration of the knight's first incursion, which he undertakes alone and does not go beyond the first five chapters, as well as the fact that, in the seventh sentence of the text, the narrator refers to the work as cuento, a short story, something he does only once more. When fiction fully takes off, Cervantes starts to call the text “book” and “history”, reserving cuento for the stories contained therein. As you reach the end of the first foray, you begin to realize that you need to explore further the fascinating fictional world you've stumbled upon. So, what perhaps began as a more or less moral fable, resorting to parody to attack chivalry books due to the pernicious effect they had on readers, became, as it was being written, the first novel modern. Using Orbaneja's anecdote, Cervantes, with characteristic self-irony, tells how he created his great work. However, the moral content even of Don Quixote's first conception is doubtful. The hero is as obsessed with traditional Spanish ballads and their protagonists as he is with books of chivalry: stories of enamored knights, all in gleaming armor, roaming exotic lands, slaying giants and the occasional dragon, and rescuing damsels in distress to prove their worth. great skill of warriors and their perfection of lovers, despite the terrible machinations of mages. Books of chivalry enjoyed great popularity and were criticized by moralists for diverting the minds of readers, especially young female readers, away from religion towards worldly things. But all this had happened in the first seventy years of the sixteenth century. From then on, books of chivalry were overtaken by the flowering of literature that became known as the Spanish Golden Age, and by Cervantes's time, no one considered them a threat anymore. The new literary moral menace was the theater. But, in an age when, according to classical fashion, fiction literature was supposed not only to please but to instruct, and when the authorities could censor or ban books, nothing was more sensible than to attribute an orthodox moral purpose to what was written, particularly when the The text's irreverent irony suggested critical ideas regarding certain aspects of Catholic practice, such as the trial and burning of heretics, the use of the rosary, and the repetition of creeds and Hail Marys. But everything indicates that Cervantes was more interested in pleasure than in instruction. What excited him was the joy of narration, the grace of parody, humor as something good in itself because of its therapeutic value. The claim of an unconvincing and anachronistic moral purpose is perhaps part of the fun: one more parody. And the joke provokes laughter even today, because the work that claims to destroy the books of chivalry is precisely what kept his memory alive. To read this lovely novel is to follow the author on an exciting adventure as he improvises the story and watches it grow under his hands. Of course, it would be a mistake to expect the book to be rigorously structured. Despite the great efforts of academic critics, Don Quixote is an episodic work, much like the books of chivalry, which consist of a succession of fortuitous encounters. The first development after the initial brief foray is to provide Don Quixote with a squire, Sancho Panza, who paves the way for conversations that alternate with action. The possibility of recruiting a squire was hinted at, but not acted upon, during the first raid. Long conversations between knight and squire are not a feature of chivalry books, but their contribution to Don Quixote is vital, allowing this comedic adventure novel to also be a character comedy. First, Don Quixote and Sancho appear as two-dimensional figures of burlesque fun, both derived from recent Spanish literature. Don Quixote is a crazy old man who thinks he is a knight errant and suffers laughable disasters caused by himself; and Sancho, the rustic, selfish and materialistic buffoon, a typical character of sixteenth-century Spanish comedies. Both are absurdly inappropriate for their roles: in chivalry books, knights and squires were young men of noble birth, the latter being apprenticed to later become knights themselves. But these two clowns soon begin to develop, as does their relationship. Each one begins to show contradictory characteristics: Don Quixote is entitled to lucid intervals, derived from contemporary medical theories about the nature of madness, and Sancho obtains the cunning and certain sagacity of the figure of the peasant in popular tales. Both gain depth and complexity—a lucid madman and a wise fool—and the humor becomes more subtle, though it never strays far from burlesque. Above all, both Don Quixote and Sancho acquire the ability to astonish us, albeit always convincingly. Two tenets of Golden Age literary theory are relevant here: the belief that admiratio (admiration) and verisimilitude are essential qualities of fictional literature underlies the wonderful combination of unpredictability and believability of our two heroes. Don Quixote is an experimental work far ahead of its time, yet it is deeply rooted in its time. The protagonist's determination to transform his life into a work of art, which will climax in his penance in the Sierra Morena, is the consequence of the insane application of another Renaissance literary principle, that of imitatio, the importance of imitating literary models. Judging by what Cervantes says at the end of the prologue, he was very proud of having created Sancho Panza. And as soon as he appears, Cervantes relates the incident that would become the most famous in the book, the adventure of the windmills. Readers wonder why it's told so succinctly, but the reason is pretty clear: the story was barely beginning to expand, it hadn't yet evolved from tale to story. Perhaps readers will also wonder why it became the most famous episode: simply because it is the first adventure that knight and squire have together? The second stage of this spontaneous development into a novel is the invention of narrators. Throughout the first incursion, the story is told by an anonymous narrator who is not given the slightest importance. Once again we see hints of things to come when we are told of the differing opinions on matters of fact among the various authors who have written about Don Quixote, and as he himself foreshadows as the sage who will chronicle his adventures for to describe the first one. Don Quixote has just left the house again when Cervantes begins to think of a way to exploit this idea of diverse narrators to keep the joke going: at a highly inconvenient point, he claims that this is where the source material, and therefore the story itself, arrives. suddenly to an end. The enigmatic second author, now introduced as the lying Moorish historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, and his unreliable Moorish translator, together manage to solve the problem, keep the story going, and create opportunities to play literary games in the course of the novel. This is all more of a parody of chivalric books, usually presented as Spanish translations of ancient documents. It is precisely at this point, the beginning of Chapter IX, that Don Quixote is called a cuento for the last time. The story torturously escapes from the hands of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra to fall into those of Cide Hamete Benegeli. Cervantes also marks this transition by warning that the second part begins there and referring to “much that in my opinion lacked in such a delicious story [...] it seemed to me an impossible thing and out of all good custom that this excellent knight some magician who would be in charge of writing down his never-before-seen exploits”, continues Cervantes when realizing the potential of this cuento and by including the act of perceiving it in the story itself. From then on, it is no longer possible to check the evolution of Don Quixote from short story to novel. So now Sancho and the band of narrators are incorporated, and Cervantes keeps writing, fast, without pausing to examine the internal inconsistencies. After several other chapters, it occurs to him that the jocularity would increase if Sancho's language were characterized by an accumulation of proverbs, and, from then on, this is how the famous speech of the squire becomes. It is possible that the idea came out of the comedy or tragicomedy of Calisto y Melibea (1499 and 1502), of manipulating his lord, something he already started to do in the first part: the relations between superiors and inferiors are shown to be more complex than perhaps look like. And now Cervantes devises a way for Sancho to become, amazingly but credibly, governor of the island that is promised to him in his first appearance; and the squire again impresses us with the rare combination of wisdom and stupidity that he displays both in government and in departing from it. In the autumn of 1614, when the weary Cervantes was writing chapter IIX, near the end of the second part, a bomb exploded: the publication, in Tarragona, of the second volume of the ingenious knight Don Quixote of Mancha, by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, pseudonym of an unidentified writer who, having accepted the false invitation at the end of the first part, produced an inferior imitation, which narrated the trip to Zaragoza and the events that occurred there. Cervantes expresses his irritation in the prologue to the second part (naturally, the last section he wrote). But he is too artistic to let anger blind him to the comic possibilities opened up by the unexpected appearance of another Don Quixote and another Sancho Panza; and tries to include them in its history. And don Quixote, still on his way to Zaragoza, suddenly changes his plans and decides to go to Barcelona: to demonstrate the spurious nature of Avellaneda's story. All this impels Cervantes to lead him to the end of his story, which was already announcing itself in the growth of doubts and disillusionment in the minds of the two characters. Cervantes is careful to conclude the second part with a definitive and categorical conclusion. Besides, he didn't have many months to live. In this reconstruction of Don Quixote's writing, I emphasize its character as a funny book because everything indicates that this was the author's intention. It is possible that the modern reader has difficulty appreciating some of this grace, since it strikes us as so cruel. In meeting this problem, it is helpful to remember that, until comparatively recent times, laughter was the self-defensive reaction against discovering flagrant deviations from the beauty and harmony of the divine nature. Laughter distances us from what is ugly and therefore potentially distressing, allowing us, in fact, to derive paradoxical pleasure and therapeutic benefit from it. In the last couple of centuries, the space of distressing experiences that could be dealt with with the help of laughter has shrunk, and nowadays it is in vogue to prefer the humorless and politically correct euphemism, which can be even less effective; but, in Cervantes' time, madness and violence were among the many manifestations of ugliness that could be met with laughter. And yet, it is common for works of fictional literature to develop, both in writing and afterwards, qualities different from those intended by the author, and in Don Quixote there are many that make us think seriously. We laugh at the antics of Don Quixote and Sancho; but when we find that we are doing so in the company of the silly duke and the silly duchess, we may not be so comfortable with our laughter; in that case, the novel becomes not just a funny book about crazy people but an exploration of the ethics of grace and the uncertain dividing line between madness and lucidity. Of course, to take another example, Cervantes made fiction itself a central theme of his work of fiction because of the comic possibilities it offered him. But nothing prevents readers from advancing to a consideration of the serious implications of the relationship between fact and fiction and of the parallels between Don Quixote's reaction to chivalry books and current reactions to telenovelas or televised violence. All of this may even lead to the realization that stilted or self-referential fiction is not a twentieth-century discovery, as certain contemporary critics and theorists seem to believe in their postmodern parochialism. With its grace and all its seriousness and all its surprises, Don Quixote offers readers a glorious voyage of discovery in the excellent company of Sancho Panza, Don Quixote de la Mancha, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Good trip everyone!

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