Monday, March 24, 2014

Reviewing Cervantes' "Don Quixote"

I like to review books that I recommend as opposed to standing next to a book with a warning sign, partly because my mission is to encourage you readers in the great expanse of the internet to love books as much as I do, but also because, as my fellow English majors would agree, it’s easier to criticize a book’s failings than laud its merits.** So as an exercise in positivism, I stay away from books I hate and try to put forward the hidden literary gems from classic and not-so-classic genres. 

That said, being a voracious reader sometimes comes with the same side-effect as being a food critic. Just as a gourmand may turn up their nose at a lot of things in favor of one quality bite, I sometimes find myself feeling “meh, it was okay” about most books. But then once in a while that one quality book comes along that reminds me of what drew me into reading in the first place. 

One of those books was El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha AKA The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, AKA Don Quixote.  Now, I’ve owned this book since I was about twelve and started to snobbishly buy any book that looked old and had gold leaf on the spine. 

“Oh look,” I’d say to myself (quietly because this was usually at a library book-sale and librarians tend to frown on exclamations of joy even when said exclamations are caused by reading material***), “This book has gold leaf on it, it must be a classic!  I am SO smart and will read this and be cultured, sitting in my leather wing-back chair next to a fireplace with the theme song from Masterpiece Classic playing in the background.”

Illustration by Svetlin Vassilev
 “I know who I am and who I may be, if I choose.” 

As I actually began to like classic literature, though, I soon realized that—surprise surprise—you can’t judge a book by its cover. A novel idea, right? Ha Ha! Get it? Novel? *Sigh* literary humor always distracts me from what I was saying.  

Oh yes, Don Quixote. Anyway I soon found that most of my shiny-spined “classics” were very dull indeed, and held little hope of the other tomes I’d purchased during my twelve-year-old snob faze. It took me over ten years to get around to borrowing an audio book copy from the library and to listen to it. 

Most people know Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s satiric novel only by the term “Quixotic” (as in hopelessly fantastical) and by the whole “jousting with windmills” scene.  What I knew of the novel I knew from and episode of Wishbone. I was pleasantly surprised when the windmill scene happens at the very beginning, so there was tons of other Grand Unknowns to the plot. I really had no idea what was going to happen next, which is unusual for classic novels since even people who haven’t read Moby Dick know how it ends, and that Darcy and Elizabeth don’t stay hating each other in Pride and Prejudice, and who’s in the attic of Jane Eyre, and that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person, and that Rosebud is named after the sled…wait, that last one doesn’t fit somehow.

I’m not going to be the one to spoil the surprises of Don Quixote where everyone else has been so discreet. Let me just tell you what I loved about it.  First, I loved the humor.  This is a satire of chivalric epics (like King Arthur), so the humor is often black and can be a bit depressing (sometimes I stopped mid-laugh because I realized maybe Cervantes was actually trying to make a point rather than a punchline). The most hilarious parts were when Cervantes bounced his two main characters off each other: the noble but crazy Don Quixote and his loyal but gullible and slightly greedy squire, Sancho Panza. Take, for example, the scenes where Sancho starts rattling off platitudes and folksy sayings, and Don Quixote complains, argues, and threatens him if he doesn’t stop it. For all his knightly pretensions, Don Quixote is shown to be very human, and he reacts how most people would react if their sidekick started to spout material from fortune cookies or quote off of paper towels.****

Another thing I really liked about Don Quixote was that it was about a man who acts on his ideals. It’s almost as if he’s a character from a Frank Capra movie, the last good man in a world full of people who have been jaded, downtrodden, or corrupted by injustice. Sure, Don Quixote’s actions are a result of madness, and the people he meets tend to mock, condescend, or persecute him, but in the end the hero of this book is still Don Quixote, if only because he doesn’t just say he values things like honor, but he tries to live them out, too. 

Sometime I wonder whether it is better to see the world as it is, with all the evils that infest its enormousness, or whether like the good Don himself it is almost better to try to force your own idea of what the perfect world would be onto this imperfect one. Going back to the comparison with Frank Capra, it’s like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where Jimmy Stewart’s character Mr. Smith can’t start righting wrongs until he knows the truth of what is wrong in the first place. Then, instead of joining the corruption (even though everyone is doing it), he fights against it. Maybe the best way is to try to understand the truth of what the world is, but with the hope of what it could be.    

*I’m pretty sure this acronym will catch on.

** This is not to say I don’t point out things that bothered me about a book, but just that I try to review books that are worth reading, despite their flaws. No human being is perfect, and it’s nonsense to expect a book to be more perfect than the human that created it.

***I know this from personal experience, not only because for years I was the frowner, but I’ve also been the frownee.

****Which my mom wants to turn into a figure of speech. Any trite or overused platitude, such as "Live Laugh Love" or "Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life" or "Lather, rinse, repeat" should be called "Paper Towel Platitudes" or something along those lines.

Recommended Reading Age: 16+

Parental Notes: I put the reading age that high because I feel like it takes a more mature reader to understand the humor and the philosophical questions Cervantes brings up. Also, there was the usual bawdy humor that pre-Puritan writers tend to use, much to the shock of post-Puritan readers such as myself. This crude humor is along the same lines as you’ll find in Shakespeare, but I actually thought Cervantes was a bit more restrained than the Bard.

Availability: Available free for e-readers (and translated by Peter Ormsby just like the copy I own), there are also some very nice hardcover copies out there, both new and used, though I have not read every translation.  Yet.

Adaptations: I haven’t seen any adaptations of the novel, though I did see Man of La Mancha starring Peter O’Toole and Sofia Lauren (because of Sofia Lauren—or rather, her costume designer—I don’t really recommend it as a family-friendly picture), but found that it wasn’t all that close to the novel’s plot. The titular tune was pretty catchy, though.  

No comments:

Post a Comment