I’m not saying that the book is not everything it’s been described as being. What I am saying is that clearly this national-competitive discourse has very little to do with literature. With Don Quijote, the bravest and most generous of heroes, maybe the same thing has happened. And maybe, too, with Miguel de Cervantes, a humble hidalgo, or member of the minor gentry, who lived a life, as described by a character in his book, that was “better versed in misfortunes than in verses.” Cervantes himself confirmed this in all the autobiographical things he wrote, though always with good humor and without bitterness.
Although almost nothing is clear about Cervantes, as is the case with Shakespeare, his life seems to have been guided by an almost novelistic destiny so as to support an endless number of critics and professors over generations. It’s not even known whether he was an hidalgo or not, because some details, such as his birth in 1754 in Alcalá de Henares, a small city outside Madrid, and his years of service as a tax collector, have led many people to believe that he was a “new Christian.” In other words that his family had recently converted to Christianity from Judaism or Islam. Other sources make him a descendant of the king of the León region, and even trace his ancestry back to Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, El Cid Campeador, the popular hero par excellence of eight centuries of Christian war against the Muslims on the peninsula. This disparity about Cervantes’ origins reflects the nature of his period —the most literary period and the one most open to all kinds of interpretations.
We don’t even know for certain Cervantes’ date of birth, and if it is believed to have been September 29th, 1547, it’s only because that is San Miguel Day in the Catholic calendar. We’re equally uncertain about when he died, a date we usually set as the same day Shakespeare died, April 23rd, 1617, but even this coincidence is debatable, because in the British Isles and on the Iberian Peninsula different calendars were then in use.
These coincidences in the lives of Cervantes and Shakespeare are rather extraordinary, and not just with reference to the dates of their deaths. Both had fathers from a different social class than their mothers. On his mother’s side, Cervantes was descended from not very rich farmers and from barber-doctors. His father, like Shakespeare’s, was a kind of civil servant who didn’t do very well and accumulated debts. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes has his “dark years” as a youth, about which we know absolutely nothing and which may have been crucial in his development. Both had failed marriages. At one point Cervantes temporarily abandoned his wife, who was 17 years younger than him, but it’s never been ascertained just why, and this has led to endless speculation. Just like Shakespeare. For both men, the defeat of the Spanish Armada had great importance: Cervantes worked for years collecting taxes in the form of wheat destined to feed the crews. And Shakespeare’s work helped forge British nationalism, which arose as a result of the Spanish naval attack. Likewise, both are to a certain degree the product of the reigns of powerful, ambitious monarchs —Elizabeth and Philip the Second— who, for good or for ill, shaped the personality of their countries for a long time. Likewise, if the identity of the person Shakespeare was addressing in the Sonnets is the main mystery of English literature, the origin and inspiration for Don Quijote, and the circumstances in which it was written, is the outstanding mystery of the Spanish language. And the advanced age of both men —though Shakespeare died at 53 and Cervantes at 70— was more or less embittered by the behavior of their respective daughters: in the case of Cervantes, the daughter illegitimate.
The Spain of Cervantes is the Spain of the so-called Golden Age in literature and the arts. This was the period when the Empire, expanding at a speed unknown until then, was at the same time preparing its own decadence. And that was the situation Cervantes lived in. There was the permanent shadow of the Conquest of America —which ended in 1550 when he was still alive, and when the three centuries of colonization began. And then there was the contrasting brilliance of the literary Golden Age and the mysticism of the period, which in Spain reached its highest point: a sister of Cervantes was a nun in one of the convents of Santa Teresa de Jesús, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Cervantes had known the saint and writer.
But that was also the Spain of hunger and beggars, of epidemics of the plague like the ones in England that closed Shakespeare’s theatre and left him without any rivals, allowing him to write his Sonnets, a high point and a mystery of the English language. In Spain, thugs and killers roamed the streets; it was a primitive country, as summed up in inventions like the Inquisition. But at the same time that Inquisition could allow writers —including Cervantes— to write that the judges, all of them, were corrupt. It might be asked if similar freedom of expression would be possible today.
In the Spain of that time, getting ahead in life was largely a question of chance. If you weren’t born a rich nobleman, there were no other alternatives than the army or public service. But in that imperial Spain, the requirements for public service were very selective. Three times Cervantes tried to go to America to work for the State but he was not allowed to. They never explained why, the implication being that he wasn’t sufficiently qualified, in spite of having already published the first part of Don Quijote. In addition, his left hand was useless from a wound sustained at the Battle of Lepanto, which he called “the greatest occasion of past and future centuries.” During that battle a Western fleet took on a Turkish fleet and defeated it, to demonstrate something surprising: that the Turks were not invincible.
According to a writer of that period, there were only six possibilities for a man without an inheritance. One was to go to the West Indies, in other words America. Another was to go to Italy. Another destination was Flanders, in other words the Low Countries. Another road led to jail, another to law suits, and the last to a convent.
Except for going to America or “taking up religion” —this latter choice was made by his great rival, Lope de Vega— Cervantes tried all the other roads, including exile for having fought a duel when he was very young. And also jail, when he was accused of defrauding the State while working as a tax collector. His life is almost a catalogue of all the things a man could go through in search of a better life, and while his literary production was considerable, some people have persuasively argued that Cervantes wrote simply because he couldn’t make a success in the many other businesses and adventures he undertook.
Of all the ups and downs in Cervantes’ life, which rival those of Don Quijote and take him much further, we must concentrate on just a few events: For example that during his infancy and youth he moved around a great deal: among the cities of Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Toledo, Valladolid and especially Córdoba and Seville, which at that time was one of the richest and most varied cities in the world. That not many good things happened to him, except perhaps having studied for a few months with López de Hoyos, an Erasmist of the period. That in search of something better he was a soldier, saw combat, fell ill with fever in the Battle of Lepanto in which 12 thousand men on the Christian side were wounded or captured, 30 thousand on the Turkish side, and more than 200 Turkish ships were sunk or captured. Cervantes fought as a rifleman, and his heroism and valor are seen in the fact that he was wounded twice in the chest and was shot in the left hand, which was rendered useless, something he was proud of for the rest of his days.
And then the event that has received the greatest attention: after Cervantes recovered from these wounds, the ship he was sailing on was isolated from the others during a storm, and he was captured in the southern Mediterranean by Berber pirates. They took him to Algiers, which at the time was little more than a pirate city and the capital of an important kidnapping industry. The fact that he was carrying two letters of recommendation from important people made the pirates think that he was someone powerful, which led them to demand a very high ransom, an impossible amount of money.
Cervantes was imprisoned for five and a half years, and although he unsuccessfully tried to escape four times, his captors did not execute him, or cut off his nose or ears, as was customary with prisoners who tried to flee. Why? There has been much speculation. Among the reasons cited was a possible homosexual relationship between Cervantes and one of the leaders of his kidnapers. When he returned to Spain, thanks to the ransom that was finally paid, he was interrogated about this by the authorities and absolved of any immoral conduct.
That episode of his incarceration in Algiers, in circumstances that we’ll probably never fully know —but which were doubtless difficult, even for that period— was decisive. It had to have been: nobody spends five and a half years imprisoned in a distant land without being changed for the rest of his life. That cultural influence is evident in Cervantes’ work both explicitly and, more important, implicitly: work that is characterized by, among other things, an extraordinarily human and understanding vision. Can it be any other way in a great writer?
It’s also obvious that Cervantes incredibly rich life has given rise to a multitude of interpretations and legends, some of them surprising for their powers of invention.
Nevertheless, I believe that the figure of Don Quijote is very closely linked to that of Cervantes himself, and that the former cannot be explained without reference to the latter. This will seem obvious to some people, but less so to others who, under the sway of the predominant line of thought in contemporary university circles, think that a text is by definition independent, and bears little relation to the life of its author. This line of thinking, by the way, begins with the admirable Gustave Flaubert, and today almost completely dominates the university approach, in a way that is worrisome. Deconstruction. In this approach, what is most important is the interpretation of a work, with the interpreters sometimes becoming even more important than the authors they are analyzing.
To my way of thinking, it’s totally clear that Cervantes, who was then closer to age 60 than to 50, would not have been able to create Don Quijote without first having undergone what he did. But the question of whether the work and the author are united or not, and in what ways, immediately leads to another, even more pertinent question: What work are we talking about? Or even before asking that question, there’s another one: Is Don Quijote a novel?
Because it’s tempting to think that Don Quijote is, above all, a character.
For example: Just as in English literature there has been no answer to the great problem of who Shakespeare was addressing his Sonnets to, one of the great problems of the Spanish language is just where and how Cervantes began to write Don Quijote. It’s thought that many of the poems that appear in the book had already been completed before he started writing it, just as was the case with some of the short novels that also figure in the book. But… Don Quijote de la Mancha?Naturally some antecedent has been found in the character in an almost unknown story by another writer, a character who also goes crazy from excessive reading. In his literature lessons, Vladimir Nabokov spoke patronizingly of the many debts of Don Quijote to the picaresque novel, a genre in which the whole plot consists of the successive adventures of the hero, generally a rogue, and of which there were many examples in the Spanish novel of the time.
Others have mentioned the “open” character of the narration, in the sense that it doesn’t contain a plot as such but, rather, the work is a series of episodes that just happen to a character, as is the case in real life. Thus, as in the Thousand and One Nights, the novel could go on indefinitely, as long as Don Quijote’s madness persisted. In other words, when Cervantes allows him to recover his sanity, it’s as if he wrote the words “The End.” Because what carries the novel, its “engine” if you will, is the character’s madness. When he gets better, the interest ends.
As often happens with great works, it’s very possible that Don Quijote began as something small, perhaps a short story. By that time Cervantes had already begun to write some of his short novels that have come to be known as the “Novelas Ejemplares,” the exemplary novels. Incidentally, when they were published they enjoyed even greater initial success than Don Quijote. For more than a century they were the most popular work of their author, and the one that was most translated. So: if Don Quijote began as a long short story, a novela ejemplar, it’s more than probable that it dealt with the hero’s first trip, trying to right wrongs, like a hero from the noble time of the knights errant.
Let us recall that Alonso Quijano, a Spanish hidalgo who was older than younger, more thin than fat, more peasant than nobleman, and a solitary character without a past, goes crazy from reading chivalric novels. Then, wishing to imitate the heroes of those novels, he changes his name to Don Quijote and goes on the road to right wrongs and make himself worthy of the love of his loved one. This woman, Aldonza Lorenzo, is a simple local peasant and hardly realizes she is inspiring such a beautiful love story and, above all, such prodigious alchemy: in the mind of Don Quijote, and ever afterward, she is Dulcinea del Toboso, the gentlest lady ever to inspire the heroic acts of a knight errant and a love story such as no other that has been written.
During this first trip, Don Quijote rode alone. Only after Cervantes realized that the character could provide much more than an exemplary novel —and that gift for recognizing stories is one of the marks of a real writer— did Cervantes assign him a squire, Sancho Panza. It is Sancho who will be the foil to Don Quijote and constitute one of the most important virtues of the book: its real music. Because there is nothing so true as the human voice, which we always recognize and which is a guarantee of the truth of a story as long as the voices have been heard and transcribed by a writer-musician with a good ear. Apparently Cervantes, who always wanted to be a playwright even though he had no luck at it —just like Stendhal, one of his admirers— was able to catch the tone of those voices during that period when, as a collector of wheat and taxes for the Crown, he traveled back and forth across Spain for years and spoke with all possible kinds of people, whose voices he then included in his book.
Now then: Is Sancho really a different character? Or, in fact, is he just the complement of Don Quijote? One is tall and the other fat; one is an idealist and the other is a realist; one rides a horse and the other rides a donkey, etc. etc. To the point where the two of them constitute a single unit, a whole. Is it possible to conceive of Don Quijote without Sancho? No, it isn’t, as popular wisdom realized immediately, adopting the two and incorporating them into Spanish imagery, carnivals, language and folk sayings —right up to today. Don Quijote and Sancho form a compact whole to the point that they appear to be the invention of a draftsman or sculptor or maybe even a choreographer who perceived in the novel a slow, rhythmic dance across the Castilian plain. (This was the successful interpretation of the creators of the Broadway musicalMan of La Mancha). And then there is that archetypal form, that triumph of design, which is hard to forget once it’s been seen, and which is not the least important reason for explaining why the two of them have been adopted by all readers, at any time and in any place. This was appreciated by an endless line of illustrators, from Gustave Doré to Picasso or Salvador Dalí.
And just as it is impossible to conceive of one without the other, it is impossible to separate the couples that in a way have been based on them: For example, aren’t Tintín and Captain Haddock a version of Don Quijote and Sancho? They and so many other popular heroes seek to right wrongs, always through the formula of a charming and realistic Sancho who accompanies a hero who is idealistic... and celibate. By the way, might that celibacy, which is indisputable in Don Quijote, be based on the celibacy of Lancelot du Lac and other Knights of the Round Table who inspired the chivalric novels that are the origin of Cervantes’ hero?
I would like to mention an aspect of the novel that isn’t always evident: love. To my way of thinking, Cervantes, who wasn’t lucky in love or in any almost anything else, did not portray a delirious love, as is usually believed, but rather the true nature of love. For what is love but a construction of the imagination —like Don Quijote’s construction of Dulcinea— that is broken down when it comes up against reality?
There are two other facets of the book which are less analyzed. One is the love of Sancho for his lord, and in the end Sancho not only understands him but even shares some of his madness. The other is the love of Cervantes for his creations, without which the book wouldn’t even be possible. For as Cervantes himself says somewhere, rather than knowing how to express oneself, it is necessary to feel.
The great question is: What is the book about? Or, if you will: What does it recount? As is always the case with great works —and once again I think of Shakespeare, and especially the great works that allow groups of people to invent themselves as a nation— each period has read Don Quijote in its own way. For a long time it was believed to be a comic novel. Then, as with Shakespeare, the Romantics rescued it and wanted to see Don Quijote as the embodiment of valor and liberty. At other times the book was seen in Spain as an argument for nature and the country in the face of the corrupt city. Or as the incarnation of the values of Spanish society. Or a symbol of religiousness, or at least of spirituality (even though allusions to religion are carefully avoided). At the beginning of the 19th century there were even some myopic people who asked, “What’s all this fuss about Cervantes?” Just as has happened with works such as Hamlet, theIliad, The Divine Comedy or Ulysses, there are infinite interpretations and it would take more than a lifetime to read all the scholarly books about it or study the way it has influenced world literature. And who knows whether the book would be what it is now if it weren’t for the early and enthusiastic reception it enjoyed, first in the United Kingdom and later in France and other countries. I have just finished writing a book of essays about five of the great inventors of contemporary writing. For two of them —Stendhal and Borges— Don Quijote was one of the books with which they learned to read. Faulkner said he read it once each year, and there was a sculpture of Don Quijote somewhere in the otherwise very sober Rowan Oak, his home in Mississippi. Perhaps there’s even a trace of Cervantes’ humor in his last novel, The Reivers.
It’s not very clear what Don Quijote is about. Is it the story of a man made insane by books, and who goes out on the road to right wrongs, like the heroes of the books that have hypnotized him? Or is it perhaps —using the device of what today might be called a “road movie”— really a hazardous trip, the enormous subtle fresco of a country under an absolutist monarchy and spied upon by an implacable Inquisition? Is it a commentary on the Spanish Golden Age by means of someone small and close to the reader? Or is it perhaps a subtle reflection on the art of storytelling and its capacity to influence reality? The different interpretations could go on almost forever.
No, it’s not really known what Don Quijote is about... but that doesn’t matter. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, in his book Meditations on the Quijote, said that no other book contains so many symbols —symbols which, at the same time, do so little to determine the way the book is interpreted. In other words, that the book speaks of immutable truths, but also of the difficulty of perceiving them. If it’s true that Don Quijote represents the Spaniard, the question is: which among all those Spaniards? The idealist? The hidalgo? The storyteller? The madman? The poor man?
This work was created little by little, something that doubtless contributes to its tone of “truth” and its capacity to make the reader fall in love with the characters. What is important is not what happens but how the inhabitants of the book react. I say ‘inhabitants’ because, more than a story, it is a case of a world. One of the things that contributed decisively to that complexity was the fact that when Cervantes was already far into the second part of his book, there appeared a rogue writer by the name of Avellaneda, who sought to steal his work and replace him. He published a book in which he not only appropriated Cervantes’ characters but even made fun of Cervantes, whom he called “old” and “crippled.”
It’s important to remember that in that period there was nothing so exotic as copyrights. If the theatrical companies didn’t publish their texts, even the most successful ones —as in the case of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whose works were largely unpublished during their lifetime— it was so that other companies couldn’t get hold of them. It was only in the Romantic period that writers sought for their works to be original. Up until then, it was not only legal to take over the ideas, characters and plots of other writers but it was not even considered offensive.
Neither were there any limits on the ways authors could try and protect their intellectual property. In taking on Avellaneda and his false Quijote, Cervantes found inspiration in the case of another classic novel, Guzmán de Alfarache, by Mateo Alemán, who had also been the victim of plagiarism. In the second part of Cervantes’ book, which experts unanimously consider the better one, Cervantes has the real Don Quijote, his Don Quijote, learn that his adventures have been described by a wise writer in a good book but also by another writer, a counterfeiter. Starting then, Don Quijote reacts and lives his adventures with an eye to dismantling the falsification, and he succeeds. In the process he helps invent metaliterature, which is one of the most visible currents in contemporary writing.
It’s possible to examine this book from many points of view, but one of the most important is that of its language, although this may not be very evident in translations. It’s not enough to say, as is usually observed, that this work sets the standard for modern Spanish. In actual fact, the book is revolutionary, and goes far beyond the Spanish language. In a country dominated by a Baroque concept of culture, the book is natural. Cervantes is the most natural of the Spanish writers, perhaps the only one, and that is one of the reasons why he is so universal, and that within Spain his triumph has never been forgiven. But that’s what happened. He was never fully pardoned for being a writer without style; he accepted all styles and all interpretations of his work. In addition, he poked fun at the writers of his period. Borges said that Cervantes’ work contains all kinds of errors, assonances and variations, and that this is one of the proofs of a masterpiece.
We said that Cervantes was never pardoned for his success, and this might seem strange, but not to anyone who is familiar with the not-exactly-fraternal traditions of Spanish culture. It’s the same as everywhere else, but more so. If, on the page reserved for praise from his colleagues, which was a prologue to all literary works of the time, Cervantes put imaginary writers, maybe it’s because he was making fun of his colleagues. But also because no other writer was willing to praise him in public. When Don Quijote was published, its success was a big surprise. This was because it came from a writer who had already been classified as a second-rater, and who in addition was already over fifty. For the period, he was an old man. At the age when Cervantes wrote the Quijote, Shakespeare was already ten years into retirement. If the Spanish literary world had no choice but to recognize the book’s almost immediate international success, it exacted revenge for that recognition by diminishing his poetry and his theatre, which was never staged. That fact still surprises foreign writers with an interest in Cervantes. Regardless of whether Cervantes’ poetry and theatre are at the same level of his prose, and it seems that they are not, Cervantes’ poetry is in Don Quijote. Much later Faulkner would say that a good novel is a form of poetry.
Although Cervantes doesn’t have the museum he deserves, it’s no coincidence that the huge equestrian sculptures of Don Quijote and Sancho are in Plaza de España in Madrid. A real symbol.
That’s what I was referring to at the beginning when I said that the most admirable thing about Don Quijote is that he has not been destroyed, even though he has been used in Spain in a symbolic or partisan way to support all kinds of strange, even nationalistic causes. I don’t want to portray Cervantes as an anarchist. To judge from his pride at having taken part in the Battle of Lepanto, and his political opinions when he was collecting tax and wheat for the Spanish Armada, or when he came home after his captivity in Algiers, he could be roughly described as a patriot. Once again, like Shakespeare.
But in my opinion Don Quijote goes beyond those narrow borders. Take the opening phrase of the book, which is now almost a commonplace in Spanish: “En un lugar de la Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…” (“In a place in La Mancha, etc.”). The second part of the phrase is not arbitrary: that “which I don’t want to remember situates the book in a territory that knows no frontiers.
The powerful author claims for himself the right to speak of a place that’s not on any map. For a writer who knew the Iberian Peninsula like a cartographer, isn’t it perhaps strange that he should choose a territory to forget about? And that this territory should be La Mancha, the southern part of Castile and the most open of all the regions in Spain? La Mancha, one of whose meanings in English is “the stain,” is also a vague and symbolic name that admits of many interpretations. Except for its windmills and a farmhouse here and there, La Mancha was and still is in large part a single line of horizon. And for me, the figure of Don Quijote and Sancho recall above all those of Vladimir and Estragón on the plain at the foot of a dry tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.In other words, a metaphysical place, a place without a name, or, if you will, a no-place where everyone can find his own place.
Stendhal said that the requirement for writing a masterpiece is that the author’s life must have been a masterpiece. I don’t know if he was thinking of Cervantes, but he might have been: I can’t think of any other writer who, after a lifetime of being buffeted by cruel fate, reached the end and was able to put across his experience with so much wisdom and —this is what’s most extraordinary— not a drop of bitterness.
And at the same time, through the adventures of an old idealist whose brain was scrambled by dreams, he was able to speak of us. Something like this can only be achieved if the author has developed a powerful humanity, something that is not innate but has been acquired over the course of a lifetime. As a consequence of all this —because this is what real art is— Cervantes was able to transmit to us the sense of liberty.
Thank you for your attention.