It’s taken me six months to face a new classic read, through a mixture of distraction with other pursuits, exhaustion with reading, and compulsion to do Shakespeare justice. In mild desperation I picked up Don Quixote and while it has taken me six weeks to finish it (not a work that lends itself to quick reading at 900+ pages), it has been worthwhile.
Don Quixote is an older man who has fed himself a diet of reading only chivalric stories to the point where he is obsessed with living as a knight errant, traveling the land on his old nag Rocinante, defending widows and orphans, righting wrongs and defeating enemies, to the glory of his true love, Dulcinea (a coarse peasant girl who has no idea of the pedestal on which the Don has placed her). Accompanying Don Quixote is his long suffering squire Sancho Panza, a farmer from his own village, riding on his trusty donkey.
Don Quixote falls under illusions quite often in the first part, most famously for mistaking windmills for giants with large flailing arms which he charges with his lance (page 63). But what amazes the people he meets is the wisdom he has when not fighting off trees, sheep and windmills. Likewise, Sancho is a mixture of loyalty, common sense and ridiculous speech, the last of which is often numerous proverbs all rattled together.
Cervantes wrote what became the first half of this book and published it in 1605. Its success led to another author writing a sequel which must have infuriated Cervantes, whose own sequel (the second part of the modern version of Don Quixote) has Don Quixote and Sancho Panza renowned wherever they travel by people having read both Cervantes’ book and the unauthorized sequel. The second book is actually a better read as it concentrates almost exclusively on the misadventures of the two travellers whereas the first book has so many diversions and stories about the people they meet that The Don and Sancho can disappear entirely from the story for pages.
My copy was the Penguin Black Classic edition, translated by John Rutherford.
Sancho races back to his master with wonderful news of the approach of the incomparable Dulcinea
“Just get your spurs into action, sir, and come with me, and you’ll see the princess, our mistress, on her way here … she and her maids are all one blaze of flaming gold, all spindlefuls of pearls, they’re all diamonds, all rubies, all brocade more than ten levels deep, with their hair flowing over their shoulders like sunbeams playing with the wind, and what’s more each of them’s riding her piebald poultry, a sight for sore eyes.”
“I think you mean palfrey, Sancho” (page 547)
And indeed approaching the pair is Dulcinea and her friends. Sancho hails her :
“O queen and princess and duchess of beauty, may your highness and you mightiness be pleased to receive into your grace and goodwill this your hapless knight.. “
Don Quixote had by now knelt at Sancho’s side and was staring with clouded vision and bulging eyes … all he could see there was a peasant girl … moon-faced and flat-nosed …. but she broke the silence and spoke
“Get out of the bloody way and let us through, we’re in a hurry!” (page 548)
Of course Dulcinea must have been transformed by the evil enchanters that inflict poor Don Quixote everywhere he goes, and poor Sancho Panza is tasked with breaking the spell by voluntarily whipping himself 3300 times on the buttocks. Needless to say, it will take some time for this to happen.
But perhaps my favourite line if is near the end of the book
“God has already decided what will happen tomorrow” (p. 943)
Personal rating: Is it the greatest novel ever written as proposed by the Nobel Institute? Well, …. I don’t think so, but it is a fun read if a bit of a long slog. The numerous short chapters each end quite firmly, making it a good one-chapter-per-night read or even a potential read-along title. 7/10.
Digressions/diversions: Everything. Anything.