High Plains Drifter

Don Quixote, a masterpiece of comic seriousness, gets a new and 'virtually twee-free' translation

How—without feeling as addled as its hero—to try to say something new about Don Quixote? About the work once singled out by the Nobel Institute as the greatest novel of all time? After imperishable tributes by Fielding, Sterne, Samuel Johnson, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Faulkner, Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno, Mann, Kafka, Joyce, Lukács, Borges, Paz, Nabokov, Calvino, and Kundera? The lowly academic hack—in this case female, a plumpish Sanchita Panza, without donkey or wineskin or really much more than turista Spanish—feels especially unqualified. And besides, who really cares? An eminent critic wrote that everybody reads Don Quixote once but few people read it twice. (After one first absorbed it in childhood, Coleridge suggested, it became, like a refreshing wellspring, a work simply to dip into.)

I first read Cervantes's comic masterpiece in my early teens, in the classic Samuel Putnam translation from 1949. I've just now read it through again—in Edith Grossman's superb new English version—at the age of almost fifty. By any standard I'm way ahead of the game. For surely very few people nowadays read Don Quixote even once. So incessant are the demands of modern life—wading through the e-mail, fretting about shoulder-fired missiles, shopping till one drops—that one almost craves a masterpiece-free zone, a place in which one doesn't have to worry about the timeless (and guilt-inducing) monuments of human genius. Who's got time for timelessness?

So the best thing to say up front, perhaps, is get hold of Don Quixote and make time for it. It will be worth the television sitcoms you skip, the thirty or so quiet evenings you spend on it. Edith Grossman actually makes it easy for you, O frazzled reader, because she has produced the most agreeable Don Quixote ever. Don't be put off by Harold Bloom's introduction (major windbag alert in effect); go right to the thing itself. Don Quixote, famously, is the first major work of Western literature to take ordinary human life for its subject—specifically, a life that is replete with accidents, fiascoes, and indignities—and make it over into something luminous with meaning. It does so without pomp or sententiousness—it's the friendliest and least formal of all the Great Books—yet will overwhelm you, in the end, with its moral and imaginative splendor.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying, but I already know the story and I'm sick of it. True, in some ways Don Quixote is almost too familiar. Even without having read it, most people (if they know anything) can recite some or all of the plot: Don Quixote, a tall, eccentric, elderly bachelor living in a tiny village in La Mancha, reads a pile of old-fashioned chivalric romances and is deluded by them into thinking that he is a knight-errant, ordained by the Almighty to perform epic deeds and restore justice, virtue, and beauty to the world. Taking up a rusty breastplate and sword, he mounts the household nag—a withered beast named Rocinante—and sets off in search of heroic adventures, along the way acquiring an equally befuddled squire, Sancho Panza. Knightly fancies lead to various pratfalls and humiliations, the most celebrated of which involves Quixote mistaking a windmill for an evil giant and getting knocked off Rocinante while trying to charge it.

After two volumes' worth of cock-up and confusion (Cervantes published Part 1 in 1605 and a sequel, Part 2, in 1615) Don Quixote, finally cured of his delusions, denounces the "detestable books of chivalry" that led him astray and apologizes to Sancho for having dragged him around the countryside so idiotically. But to everyone's dismay he also becomes melancholy and dies soon after, much mourned by his small circle of friends and "loved ... by everyone who knew him."

I confess that I wasn't especially looking forward to my second reading of the work—so shopworn, at this point, was much of my existing mental Quixote imagery (think cheap Picasso posters, Man of La Mancha, a groggy Frank Sinatra singing "The Impossible Dream"). But the book quite staggered me with its charm, beauty, and profundity. Once you enter (or re-enter) its expansive, ruminative, deeply nourishing world, the literary equivalent of eating "slow food," it's hard not to become a bit of a bore about how stupendous it is.

Some of my immediate pleasure, it is true, was of a pedantic nature. I have long taught the history of the novel, and it was wonderful to go back to the source, so to speak, with Cervantes. A basic convention in novels dictates that the characters encountered will be "real" people, more or less like ourselves. Supernatural beings, we assume, will not involve themselves in the action; nor will anything other than the standard laws of nature apply. When a writer self-consciously introduces strange or supernatural elements, we immediately recognize, with greater or lesser equanimity, that the novelist has decided to violate the conventions of the genre.

Don Quixote is considered (in Edith Grossman's words) the "first—and probably the greatest—novel" in the European tradition in part because it makes this claim to represent "ordinary life" a central and profound aspect of the plot. Cervantes's fiction is a sort of birth announcement—droll and yet decisive—for realism itself. It betokens a new human attitude. By showing Quixote driven mad by the involuted, highly stylized, comically implausible heroic romances of the later Middle Ages, fantastic tomes such as the fourteenth-century Amadís of Gaul and the fifteenth-century Palmerín of England, Cervantes was not just spoofing an out-of-date literary mode; he was also marking the obsolescence of the philosophical world view it embodied. Don Quixote is far more, one soon realizes, than just a comic assault on some fanciful old stories: in its deepest aspect it is a metaphysical statement—a revolutionary affirmation of that secular and humanistic point of view we associate with modernity itself.

Consider: in Palmerín of England a crucial episode involves the enchantment of the hero's father and his imprisonment in the castle of a horrible ogre. Cervantes no doubt had this episode and others like it in mind when the pixilated Don Quixote decides that the somewhat dirty inn in which he and Sancho lodge one night is really an enchanted castle. They are made to sleep in the same room with a mule driver who is carrying on an affair with the inn's uncouth servant girl, Maritornes. When Maritornes comes to visit her lover that night and tumbles into Don Quixote's bed by mistake, the baffled knight at once assumes that she is the beautiful daughter of the lord of the castle and has fallen madly in love with him. As he begins, ludicrously enough, to explain why he cannot satisfy her ardor (he must be faithful to Dulcinea, the local peasant wench to whom he has pledged his knightly troth), the mule driver wakes up and, enraged at finding Maritornes plumped down in his neighbor's bed, delivers "such a terrible blow to the narrow jaws of the enamored knight that he bathed his whole mouth in blood," knocking him out cold. Yet even when Don Quixote comes out of his swoon the next morning, he's no less delusional: he tells Sancho that he has been attacked in the night by "a hand attached to the arm of some monstrous giant."

We laugh here—or at least give a snort—because we know that giants and enchanters do not exist. Yet it is hard to overestimate the radical reorientation of consciousness when humanity at large—starting in Western Europe during the Renaissance—began divesting itself of belief in supernatural causes. Cervantes allegorizes just such a process. Don Quixote is, as it were, the last man to believe in magic—the last man in his world to feel himself surrounded (and often buffeted) by invisible beings. He's like a paranoid schizophrenic, thinking that everything that happens to him is the work of unseen sorcerers plotting against him—and his mental isolation is immense, despite Sancho's ambivalent support for some of his fantasies. For much of the fiction he comes off as a senile man-child: fey, withered, dissociated, lost in his archaic, estranging dreams.

Georg Lukács, the great twentieth-century Marxist critic, once said that Don Quixote "stands at the beginning of the time when the Christian God began to forsake the world." Cervantes —who some biographers think was the descendant of converted Spanish Jews —retains a kind of superficial Catholic orthodoxy in Don Quixote. But one also feels throughout the book a powerful drift away from the metaphysics of belief itself—from any felt sense of a nonhuman presence at work in the world.

Indeed, one might call Don Quixote the first great Western story without gods. One of the things that struck me on this reading was the almost post-nuclear emptiness of the fictional landscape. Nearly everything in the work seems to take place on some vast denuded plain, with few houses and few people and only the hot, high Spanish sky above. (After Quixote and Sancho leave their village in Part 1, they seem lost for ages in this barren landscape, their sole shelter from the heat often nothing more than a small stand of olive trees or a patch of scrubby esparto grass by some rocks.) Yes, Cervantes gives us a kind of documentary realism here: this is the same parched and unforgiving Iberian landscape we see in the background of, say, Robert Capa's extraordinary photographs from the Spanish Civil War. But he gives us realism in a larger sense, too. Don Quixote's emptied-out plain is a Castilian prototype of the blasted heath traversed by Lear and the Fool in King Lear, of the strange wasteland in which Vladimir and Estragon find themselves stranded in Waiting for Godot. And in the Quixotean setting, as in Shakespeare or Beckett, the bare, almost lunar quality would seem to register the disappearance of any residual spiritual reality. There's nobody out there—not even the feeblest, most decadent of enchanters.

Sounds bleak, I know—but always in Cervantes (and this is both his splendor and his charm) there's an upside: without gods, human beings begin to see one another. The human individual is the great Cervantean subject, the subject on whom is lavished all of Cervantes's prodigious comic tenderness, the animate center of his world. I use the word "tenderness" advisedly here: I disagree in the end with Nabokov's famous assertion that Cervantes is sadistic toward his two main characters. ("Both parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty," Nabokov argued in the posthumously published Lectures on "Don Quixote" [1983]. Thanks to its author's befouling delight in "cheerful physical cruelty," Nabokov continued, the great Spanish novel stands out as "one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned.")

It is true that the ruling visual motif of Don Quixote could be said to be the bruise. Once off on their sallies, Quixote and Sancho are repeatedly punched, flogged, tripped, unhorsed, poked, pulled along by their beards, clobbered on the pate. (Not that Edith Grossman often uses bits of antiquated translatorese like "pate." That this version of Don Quixote is virtually twee-free is one of its signal strengths.) Quixote loses part of an ear; Sancho gets tossed in a blanket by rambunctious peasants; both characters tumble into holes and caves with some regularity.

The injuriousness of this fictional world might be explained, of course, by slapstick convention. Comic blows, we surmise, don't really hurt. The Quixotean buffoon can slip, fall, crash into walls—but he immediately gets up again, perhaps grimacing but essentially unscathed.

Except the opposite is the case. Nabokov was right to say that Cervantes lays special emphasis on bodily affliction. He makes us linger on his characters' physical vulnerability—gives it new specificity. He pays the same interested attention, tellingly, to the hurts suffered by Quixote and Sancho's animals. Both Rocinante and "the grey"—Sancho's slew-footed donkey—share in the tribulations of their masters, especially the poor clapped-out Rocinante. One can only rejoice at those moments when, after numerous knocks and mishaps, the bedraggled old fellow finally gets to graze in a shady spot and even to caper about a bit.

Yet surely this emphasis on a sort of banal, nonheroic suffering—contra Nabokov—is something other than authorial sadism. I take it as another emblem, perhaps the most tangible one, of Cervantes's revolutionary interest in the individual. No writer before him (not even Chaucer or Boccaccio) registered the physical life of the ordinary human being in quite the palpable way that he did. Knights in medieval romance suffer wounds, but seldom do we hear about the shape of the laceration, the location of the bruise. We're not really asked to think about it. In contrast, the pain experienced by characters in Don Quixote is the kind of pain we feel: everyday pain, localized pain, our pain.

This attention to physical detail—to the sensations of lived experience—is everywhere in Don Quixote. Like all great novelists who came after him, Cervantes was preternaturally alert to individual traits—to tiny gestures, oddities of bearing, physical blemishes, all the myriad things that differentiate one human being from another. Quixote himself is spectacularly weird-looking—rawboned and "weathered," we learn at the start, and also comically elongated. When he is visited at home by his friends at the beginning of Part 2 (he is still recovering from his first sallies), they find him "sitting up in bed, dressed in the green flannel vest he wore under his armor, and a red Toledan cap, and looking so dry and gaunt that he seemed to be a mummy." He's like a bit of Manchego—aged and also a bit crumbly under the wrappings. The small detail of the green flannel vest—so useless after four hundred years, except to bring us right into the scene and delight us—is lovely.

Quixote and Sancho are physically mismatched, of course (one fat and one thin), and as such, the first in a long and magnificent line of odd-looking comic duos. It is amazing how far the Cervantean innovation—put two funny people together and they become, in their interaction, even funnier—extends down through the centuries. Austen used it with Emma and Harriet; Dickens with Pickwick and Sam Weller; Wodehouse with Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. Preferably some physical, linguistic, or psychic contrast is preserved between the partners: in the pop-culture realm one thinks at once of Laurel and Hardy, Lucy and Ricky (or Lucy and Ethel), Basil Fawlty and Manuel. Thanks in part to the marvelous accidents of physiognomy, John Cleese's whole comedic career might be considered a grand Cervantean venture—from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks to the timeless master-servant shenanigans of Fawlty Towers. Were Don Quixote in need of one, "Silly Walks" would make a good subtitle: the book is indeed a silly walk—a sort of goofy picaresque—around Renaissance Spain. And surely Cleese knew what he was doing when he gave the tall, lean, hidalgo-ish Basil Fawlty—fated to see his romantic dreams for his hotel repeatedly collapse in chaos—a short, jabbery, farcically incompetent Spanish waiter as an employee.

Yet Cervantes's pleasure in the Quixote-Sancho pairing offers an insight, finally, into his moral vision. By which I don't mean to underplay the sheer triumphant silliness of the book. When I started rereading Don Quixote, I was afraid it wouldn't be very funny—that its comedy would be somehow beneath me, not "adult" or camp enough (I'd take Firbank over the Three Stooges any day). Sancho Panza, I thought, ugh.

And I was right: a lot of the comedy was beneath me. It was so stupid that I couldn't believe I was laughing at it—except I was. (There's bodily humor aplenty, but as I quickly discovered, if you try to resist, you're doomed.)

The book does have a moral vision, though—one inextricably bound up with its warmth and humor. This comes through most clearly perhaps in what one might call Cervantes's friendliness as a narrator—in his sociability, in the way he honors other people (including the reader), in his unwavering respect for those who, like knights of old, remain open and courteous to strangers. Quixote and Sancho, of course, are the greatest of friends—notwithstanding differences in rank, wealth, outlook, and relative sanity. (So are Rocinante and the donkey, who constantly nuzzle and solace each other.) Sancho is unsure at times why he stays with his master; no riches seem to be in the offing, and he keeps getting beaten up. But as he explains to someone they meet on the road, "There's no malice in [Señor Quixote]: a child could convince him it's night in the middle of the day, and because he's simple I love him with all my heart and couldn't leave him no matter how many crazy things he does." And Quixote, however tenuous his grip on reality, feels the same way about his squire. One of the shattering things about Quixote's death (again, like life, in that you see this death coming from miles away but it's a shock nonetheless) is that we know how bereft Sancho will be.

Though Cervantes remains in many ways mysterious (we know more about him than we do about Shakespeare, but that's not saying much), it is clear he was a lovable and endearing man. Not because life was easy for him—in fact, it was tumultuous and painful. As a young man he served as a harquebusier in a Spanish regiment in Naples, and had a hand mangled in the Battle of Lepanto —the momentous 1571 sea fight in which Christian naval forces sank the Turkish fleet and halted (for good, it turned out) further Ottoman incursion into the western Mediterranean. Trying to get back to Spain from Italy, Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates and held for ransom. He was imprisoned in Algiers for five years, serving part of that time as a slave of the viceroy, Hassan Pasha. When, maimed and impoverished, he finally returned to Spain (after being ransomed by a Spanish priest), he was denied a royal preferment. He languished in debtors' prison and struggled to support himself as a poet and a playwright. Life looked up with the huge success of Don Quixote, but by then Cervantes was worn out. He died in 1616, soon after Part 2 appeared.

One might expect such a man to be embittered—to despise other people. But everyone who met Cervantes seems to have been impressed by his kindness and humor. Cervantes, said the priest who ransomed him, "showed a very special grace in everything." This grace was evident even to the brutal Hassan Pasha. After leading several escape attempts, Cervantes refused, despite the threat of torture, to name any of his conspirators and instead chatted gallantly—and amusingly—with his tormentors.

The hardships Cervantes faced seem, paradoxically, to have opened him to the world. (Or opened him further: his curiosity about life was apparently innate.) And it is this openness, finally, that makes him still so valuable now. No contemporary North American reader of Don Quixote can fail to be struck by its surprisingly sympathetic evocation of the world of Islam. The Muslim element is everywhere in Cervantes's novel—for reasons both obvious and profound. From the eighth to the fifteenth century Spain had been the site, of course, of a bloody and continuous struggle for dominance between the Christian West and the Islamic East. The "valorous knights" with whom Quixote identifies most fervently in his insanity are precisely those Christian warriors who are celebrated for helping to drive the Moors out of Spain. Indeed, a conspicuous element in his folly is that Quixote doesn't seem to realize that the Moors have been driven out. He's stunningly oblivious of history itself, and at his most puerile when declaiming about paynims and Saracens.

Cervantes's own attitude is more complex. At times he draws directly, yet without rancor, on his experiences in the Islamic world. In the most delightful of Don Quixote's interpolated tales—three famous embedded stories related by characters whom Quixote and Sancho meet on the road—a weathered Spanish officer describes how after being captured by the Turks at Lepanto, he was forced to serve as an oarsman in the sultan's fleet at Constantinople, and was then held for ransom in the prison of the king of Algiers. He has just gotten back to Spain, he tells Quixote, having finally escaped his captors with the help of a beautiful young Moorish woman. (He hopes to marry her; they have fallen in love, and she wishes to convert to Christianity.) It's an exhilarating sequence. Cervantes here takes the reader on a kind of textual cruise—away from the parched plains of Castile and to the populous, polyglot Islamic cities of the eastern Mediterranean. By transporting us to Constantinople and back—past Cyprus, Crete, Naxos, Rhodes, and other breezy blue Ottoman outposts—Cervantes both expands and aerates the entire narrative.

But the human element is equally refreshing. Despite the clichéd captive-in-Barbary plot, no Turkish or Arab character in this interpolated tale is a caricature. Cervantes seems to be describing people he actually met. He takes a subtle, almost Mozartian interest in the psychic interplay between Christian prisoners and Muslim captors. And most pleasing (however fanciful) is the love plot itself: a breathtaking transformation of Cervantes's personal trauma—war, injury, loss, enslavement—into a cosmopolitan allegory of mutual attraction and restored human connection.

Elsewhere in Don Quixote, Cervantes challenges the crude logic of Western xenophobia. In Part 2 Quixote and Sancho meet up with a band of German pilgrims, one of whom turns out to be Sancho's former friend and neighbor Ricote the Morisco. (The Moriscos were those Muslims left living in Spain after the Christian victory; they were forcibly expelled—on pain of death—by royal decree from 1609 to 1613.) Ricote, a humble shopkeeper, has disguised himself as a pilgrim in order to retrieve a small "treasure" he had to leave behind when he and his family were forced to flee. His wife and daughters are in Algiers; he hopes to settle them in Germany, far from the "terror and fear" they have endured in Spain. His story is a poignant one, the refugee's timeless lament, and Sancho listens sadly, sharing a wineskin with his old friend, until they "go their separate ways." Cervantes never belabors the point, or descends into sentimentality, but offers a moving affirmation of ordinary human ties flourishing in spite of fanaticism.

Finally, one wants both to laugh and to marvel at the purportedly Muslim origins of Don Quixote itself. One of Cervantes's most ingratiating (and postmodern) gambits is to pretend that he is not in fact the real author of the novel but, rather, has simply had it translated from the recovered manuscripts of a mysterious and noble Arab named Cide Hamete Benengeli (which translates roughly as Sir Ahmed Eggplant). Though he has never met Benengeli, or anyone who has, he pays the Arab the most exquisite and elaborate mock homage throughout, a gesture that at this point in history undoubtedly has new and startling pathos.

Cervantes had a faith in conversation, in paying attention to others, in bonding with strangers, in speaking, reading, and writing across all kinds of human barriers. The sharing of stories—stories of real life, not the fabrications of romance—had the power, he grasped, to assuage madness, loneliness, and pain. Quixote and Sancho are great, life-saving conversationalists. Their friendship lives on and dilates in the absurd, meandering, yet touching debates they have with each other. At bottom both seem to want to prolong their chivalrous adventures precisely in order to prolong the pleasures of listening and speaking, speaking and listening. And in turn they speak—and listen with attention—to every "noble stranger" they meet on the road.

In the fantasy of shared authorship Cervantes would seem to allegorize a broader vision of human fellowship. Hearing another voice, taking in another's story, is the essential thing—the humanizing component in an otherwise bleak landscape. It saves us from our lunacy and pride, both personal and cultural.

At one point, when I was in my early twenties and very depressed, I talked a lot to a friend, an American man who had spent many years in Madrid. In one of our conversations he told me of a phrase used in Spain to console someone: "Te acompaño en tu pesar"—"I accompany you in your sorrow." One "accompanied" by listening sympathetically, by responding, by not turning away. As I reread Cervantes's munificent fiction, the phrase kept coming back to me. At the deepest level Don Quixote is about accompanying someone and being accompanied in turn. Cervantes is a superb, seducing, insouciant companion: one reaches the novel's final word—the courteous "Vale" to the reader, set down almost four hundred years ago—with an abrupt pang of loss. Don Quixote is a joke, of course: nine hundred pages of galumphing around, getting splattered, toppled, and (finally) deeply mortified by one's own folly. But enter its talkative spaces and you may find yourself, like the hero and Sancho, the opposite of sad and alone.