Thursday 5 July 2012

Have Sword, Will Travel

Stu of Winstonsdad Blog and Richard over at Caravana de recuerdos have decreed July to be Spanish Lit Month, and who am I to argue!  I originally thought that I'd struggle to find anything to review this month, but as it turns out, I'll be a lot more active than I could ever have imagined.  More on that later in July :)

To start off with though, I thought I'd use the opportunity of a fiesta of Spanish-language writing to have a look at a book which has been sadly neglected on my bookshelves for a good while now, gathering dust and fading in the sun over a period of years.  What makes my neglect even more criminal is that the book is not only a mainstay of Spanish literature, it's one of the true classics of world literature - I think you might have guessed its name by now...

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote is a monster of a book, around 800 pages in my Wordsworth Editions version, but nearer 1000 in other versions I've seen.  Despite its size, however, it's actually a very accessible book, less a densely-plotted novel than a continuous series of stories held together by the seemingly-insane adventures of our titular hero, Don Quixote de la Mancha, the Knight of the Woeful Figure/Lions.  A satire on improbable contemporary novels of knights-errant, Cervantes' book is a funny, page-turning work, one which can be recommended to any reader.

Our hero is a modest, relatively well-off man whose brains, after decades of reading sixteenth-century pulp-fiction, become so addled that he actually believes all the improbable events he reads about.  Eventually, he decides that his life is worthless unless he does his duty to the world in becoming a knight-errant, a wandering righter of wrongs.  Therefore, dressed in ancient and dubious armour, he sets off armed with a sword and his love for the semi-imaginary Dulcinea del Toboso (in reality, a peasant woman he has never met...), supported, initially at least, only by his trusty steed Rozinante.

He soon realises that a knight-errant needs a squire to take care of the incidentals in life, a right-hand man to bear witness to his heroics, and this is where the short, squat, simple figure of Sancho Panza fits in.  A villager who is more than happy to leave his wife and children at home for a while, Sancho's greed for the treasures he expects to gain from his work with the noble knight lead him to saddle up his donkey and ride off into the sunset with Don Quixote in search of adventure - and what wonderful adventures they are :)

The legendary tilting at windmills is one of the first of Quixote's madcap antics, but his noble attack on the army of sheep is another which sticks in the memory.  The poor man is completely delusional and sees enchanters and giants everywhere he goes, each traveller he comes across a potential supplicant - or enemy.  It's little wonder that Sancho appears to lose it himself before long, believing his master will eventually become an emperor and grant him his own island.  That could never happen - could it? 

Although Don Quixote is a long work, it's divided into two parts (of which the second is better than the first), and each of these is subdivided into dozens of chapters, making it an excellent book to pick up and set down as the mood takes you.  I tended to take it in small chunks, reading on if the story was continued in the next chapter, as was often the case.  On a cold, wintry Melbourne day though, it was often all too easy to just stay in my armchair and keep going...

The translation in my edition is provided by Peter Motteux, and despite withering criticism of this version (a note on the Don Quixote Wikipedia page describes it as "worse than worthless"), I found it surprisingly good reading, especially when you consider that it dates from the start of the eighteenth century.  If you're looking for something a little closer to the original text though, there are many versions to choose from - it seems that there has been no shortage of knights-errant willing to tilt the windmill that is translating Don Quixote ;)

I could go on and on, but I'd just be repeating myself.  While some may prefer to analyse the book and scrutinise its importance to world literature, for me Don Quixote is best read as a humorous rambling collection of stories, one anyone will enjoy.  It's a book I'm bound to come back to at some point, so I'll leave deeper analysis until then :)  One word of warning before I leave you though.  Be careful with all the reading you do this month - you don't want to end up like poor Don Quixote...