Book Review Travel

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

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Over the last month, Don Quixote has travelled a huge amount with me. He was with me for the tail end of my glamourous Christmas trip to the C’ribbean, he was with me the last time I visited my family, he was with me when I went to a rock show in Milan, he’s come with me to work about 25 times, he accompanied me to a massive wine tasting event, we’ve been to the theatre and the cinema together, I’ve slept beside him almost every night since we met and he was with me, yesterday, when I travelled to Skegness on a Wednesday afternoon to go see some dead whales before they were taken away to be buried in landfill.

This is a post about Dead Whales and Don Quixote.

Miguel de Cervantes wrote this MASSIVE book near the start of the 17th century, and it is one of the many pieces that lays claim to being “the first novel”. In some ways it is Tristram Shandy written a century earlier, but in more ways it is Northhanger Abbey, it is Mel Gibson’s The Beaver, it is Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, it is Breaking Bad, it is My Little Friend, it is Kick-Ass, it is every single story you’ve ever consumed where someone lacks self-knowledge to the point of ridiculousness, it is every mid-life crisis story taken to extremes, and (most importantly) it is the novel I’ve provisionally started writing called Bond Quixote.[1]

Alonso Quixano is a middle-aged, single man of reasonable means. He lives in a big house with a housekeeper and his niece (his ward) and he spends his leisure time (which is almost all of his time) reading old books about wandering knights. His consciousness is steeped in a style of literature that was already antiquated in 1600, and he has done so little with his life, he has seen so little of the world, that he believes all he has read: that magic, enchanters, wizards and dragons exist. Alonso believes in visions, he believes he has read his own future in these books and, just before he shifts from the middle period of life to old age, he convinces himself HE IS a knight errant, he restyles himself as Don Quixote de la Mancha, hires a local labourer to be his squire and he sets out on horseback, planning to right wrongs, help the weak and honour, forever, his paramour: The Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, a peasant woman from the neighbouring village that he has neither met nor seen nor heard anything of except her name, who he has (like himself) elevated to the status of nobility in his own mind. His squire, Sancho Panza, to begin with is only with DQ for the hyperbolic wealth and power that is promised, but as they travel together Sancho becomes as confused and fantastical as his delusional master.

It’s a buddy novel, a road trip novel, a comedy that veers close to being something transcendental, a highly postmodern text, as meta as almost anything I’ve ever read. Don Quixote was published in two parts, with a gap of about 10 years inbetween. The first half includes lots of asides, it includes a story about some young lovers that DQ gets involved in as a witness for about 100 pages, there is also a novel within the novel (about 60/70 pages), so in that first section only about half of it is actually about the Don and Sancho. The second part directly discusses criticism of the first half, which is a literary hit in the world of the novel as DQ is now a celebrity.

In the first part, he sought out adventures, and was responded to in two ways. Strangers would encounter him and think either: a) he’s crazy, but he’s got a sword so let’s get out of his way or b) he’s crazy, let’s make fun of him because he’s probably harmless. In the second part, people already know who he is, and they seem to have reached a general consensus that he is safe to bait, that there is nothing to be scared of. Strangers, nay fans search for him, looking to tease him for their own entertainment. A rich duke gives Sancho governorship of a village for a week to see what happens. A guy from DQ’s hometown dresses up as a rival knight in a botched attempt to beat him in battle and banish him home as a punishment. Lots of little things happen, it is very episodic, but some characters do disappear and then recur in the way that one would expect them to in a novel, and it is clearly a “singular work”, rather than lots of small pieces tied together by nothing bar a binding.

Cervantes’ text is witty, there are lots of funny scenes, funny ideas: a particularly good bit is when DQ fights a load of gaolers transporting dangerous criminals, as he believes their incarceration to be unfair. He is then subsequently attacked and robbed by the robbers he sets free. Ho ho hum. Funny. There’s another good bit where he thinks he’s entered a magical underground fantasy world, when in fact he just had a dream. It’s all about delusion and confusion and Cervantes does, particularly as it goes on, play everything quite aggressively for laughs, though there is a very medieval strain of gags where people keep encouraging DQ to assault Sancho Panza for their amusement, which doesn’t land well in the now.

Also, Don Quixote is huge. My copy is 931 pages long, with small print and giant pages. It goes on and on and on and on, and though it isn’t boring, it is tiresome and repetitive. What becomes most tedious by the end is the running gag about Sancho Panza speaking in proverbs all the time. It isn’t that funny to begin with, but anything done literally 500+ times doesn’t become more funny with repetition.

Near the start, I found the issue of DQ’s mental health to be quite alarming in its portrayal. He is clearly mad, flat out crazy, going through a serious psychological breakdown. He is exploited and bullied and feared and – in Part One – controlled very brutally by those who care about him. He is attacked a lot, injured a lot, his family burn all of his books, he is kept tied up, locked in a cage for periods and he is laughed at. There was a great Viz letter shared on their social media a couple of days accidentally satirising this trope:

 

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And that’s the point: DQ doesn’t need to be laughed at, he needs to be helped.

Don Quixote is easy to pity, particularly in the first half. He has a sword, yes, but he doesn’t know how to use it. He has a horse that is too old and weak to gallop, he has a tin basin for a helmet, he thinks inns are castles, peasants: princes, donkeys: horses, criminals: victims; he is living false, he has an utter disconnect from reality and it is quite painful to read. In the second part – Cervantes a decade older and DQ a celebrity within his own world – there is less of this. No one pities him, and the people from his hometown who earlier sought to save him by traditional means – incarceration and long term treatment – instead try to stop him by colluding in his madness, by trying to use it against him. And it’s treated less seriously, too. What else is noticeable in the second half is the stylistic, literary development. In only a decade – and, granted, with a lot of criticism in between – Cervantes has learnt how to make something that feels like a modern novel. Gone are the asides and the extra texts within it, gone are the digressions that detract rather than add, more developed are the characters who do exist and there are less – though still some – events that come completely out of nowhere. Literature travelling on apace, of course of course of course.

As I sat on a train heading back to London from Skegness, I reached the end of Don Quixote and felt a mixture of sadness and pleasure. In the final quarter of the book, Don Quixote encounters something strange – a newly published sequel to his adventures that is not written by his original “historian” and is full of lies about him. Cervantes’ dialogue critiques and tears apart this rival, this copyright thief, and then he kills off the hero, making it explicit that he has done so to stop other people from trying to write about DQ. This was real – the rival, real, book was published before Cervantes finished his own sequel and he was, naturally, annoyed about it. Life enters into the Art in a very late 20th-century kinda way. But to my own experience, DQ had been with me for a full month of my life, which is the longest any book has taken me to read in a long time (watch the slew of short books I intend to pour through over the next few weeks), and though I didn’t enjoy every page, I enjoyed enough of it to carry about a three kilo wodge of paper.

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The dead whales in Skegness were an odd sight. All had been buried during the afternoon before my arrival to minimise the smell and to lower the risk of gut explosions. While I stood on the Lincolnshire beach in the dark, they unburied the first one and got ready to lift it onto a truck and drive in to a landfill. I spoke to one of the contractors and he told me that the whales were going to be buried deep, at least three times their own height (not length). The smell of the massive corpses, as well as the rat horrorshow the mass of organic material would soon become, and also the risk of people trying to cut off souvenirs, meant that burial was essential. More explosions could happen as it rotted away further, and the eventual collapse of the flesh from the bone would be less risky if already compacted under several metres of landfill matter. Ugly.

I had to change trains at a place called Grantham, and running to make a connection I got on the wrong vehicle. I added two hours to my journey by travelling via Doncaster, and ended up returning to London on a slow, end of the night, train. I had plenty of time to finish DQ and to begin my contemplation.

This edition of Don Quixote was published by Visual Editions, a company that makes interesting-looking books. They did the great Tristram Shandy from a few years ago, they did the Jonathan Safran Foer Tree of Codes, they did the Geoff Dyer Another Great Day at Sea and they did Adam Thirlwell’s Kapow! (a truly wonderful novel). I was excited when their DQ was announced – I was expecting something that would look great and read great. But, when I peeled off the plastic cover and started to read the introduction, I was already a little disappointed. This was not a fresh translation, but a reprint of one competed by John Ormsby in 1885. Uhm. Fine, the book’s old, why should the translation be fresh? Second was the discovery that all dialogue spoken by Don Quixote would be printed in a different font to everything else. No explanation for this, no reason for it and no literary justification in the end. Different fonts for things he sees or says that are imagined or real, thematically would’ve made sense, but the decision made felt arbitrary, and was missed on more than one occasion. Thirdly, there was the introduction by Ali Smith (who I usually like), who had not read Don Quixote. I was expecting a witty piece playing on this lack of knowledge of the text, but instead the reader is given a massive poem that she has constructed using a word from every page of the translated text of Don Quixote, implying within it a knowledge and appreciation of the book that isn’t real. It’s a bit smug, that word I throw around whenever I encounter something in a book I don’t like.

The text is accompanied by photographs too, some of which are very beautiful, taken around Spain. But that’s as far as the connection goes, there had been minimal effort to match the photographs with the moments in the text they occur at, and though some do chime (DQ at an inn, picture of a sleazy hotel), others bear no relation at all (i.e. pictures of the sea when DQ is far inland). The whole package feels a little rushed, more than a little forced and nowhere near the playful, genuinely exciting and beautiful products that Visual Editions usually produce. In the wider context of the mismatched (but pleasant) photographs and the pointless font variation, Ali Smith’s failure to have read the novel is embarrassing, rather than quirky. And in this way the whole production is quixotic – Visual Editions thought that they’d produced a visually interesting, contemporary, relevant, version of Don Quixote but have instead produced a reprint the same as any other.

DID THEY DO IT ON PURPOSE?

In many ways, we are all quixotic, me especially. I spent a Wednesday afternoon travelling to Skegness to look at some dead whales because I fancy myself as an experience-chasing literary type, but I’m not, am I? I’m an unpublished bar manager/blogger with little to nothing to differentiate me from anyone without my wanky qualifications and unrealistic aspirations. I am Don Quixote. I am not Bond Quixote, but Flemingway Quixote, Lowry Quixote, Dyer Quixote, Woolf Quixote, Kerouac Quixote. I am not the person I set myself up to be, and thus reading about someone being laughed at and bullied for trying to live his dreams is a painful thing to do. Is that what DQ and me and others like us deserve? Ridicule? Are my increasingly wishful hopes and dreams of being given money for language as mad as DQ thinking he is a knight errant? Maybe it’s about the same, and that is what jars, that is why it’s tough reading the first part of Don Quixote as someone with long-standing desires that seem likely to be eternally unfulfilled. He is a tragic type and so am I, so am I, so am I?

Don Quixote dies with regained sanity, admitting the error of his ways and lamenting his inability to have clocked the error sooner. He expires at peace. Is that what I need to do? Abandon the blog and slip into the dark, Northern sea on a cold night? Swim towards the lights of Europe until fatigue and the weight of my high-tops drags me to the depths? The opposite of a beached whale, swimming into their domain rather than landing, crushed, on ours. For that is how beached whales die – their body weight, unsupported by the buoyancy of surrounding water, crushes their internal organs. A whale cannot survive on the land like a human cannot survive beneath the waters. Ahab, of Moby Dick, is another quixotic figure, unable to fulfil the one dream that matters. And his story ends in death, too. Maybe that is the only way to heal a quixotic soul, to let it die.

Anyway, I’ve spent enough time writing this, I need to get back to Bond Quixote, while the dream still survives and my fingers are still able to type.

Don Quixote: it’s enjoyable, but fucking long. I’m going to neither recommend or condemn it, it’s very much the kind of thing people read because they want to, not because they’ve been persuaded to. But, for me, it wasn’t worth a month of literary monogamy.

NB: The most famous trope of Don Quixote in the wider cultural canon is the image of him fighting windmills he believes to be giants. This is LITERALLY the first thing that happens to him when he leaves his home town, showing how very few pages into the novel the Zeitgeist ever got. Something worth bearing in mind.

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[1] Can you guess what it’s about? Of course you can, the title is the premise is the plot. My only fear is that the title – being great and very clear – promises A LOT and that I may struggle to deliver.

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