Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Don Quixote

Quick! How many Spanish novels can you name that are more than 100 years old? Yeah, I didn't get much past Don Quixote either. There is a reason it has survived and has been named one of the best books of all time. It is really good.

The modern version was actually written as two books. The first book contains the classic Don Quixote stories. He fights windmills and thinks he is a noble night and all that fun stuff. In the second book, most everybody has read the first book and is enthralled with the character of Don Quixote. We get many elaborate ruses created by people to allow Don Quixote to be his entertaining self. (Alas we also get a more rambling narrative.)

Reading the book in a modern translation is the way to go. The language is "fresh" and modern, similar to how it would have been to the original readers. Don Quixote himself, however, talks in a more flowery, archaic language. Sancho Panza is constantly quoting and misquoting popular sayings. It all makes for a very entertaining book that is easily accessible to the modern reader.

You can easily picture a Monty Python crew acting out some of the different scenes. The story has a slight plot, but that is really just a thread to hold together a series of crazy adventures. Sancho Panza knows that Don Quixote is mad. Yet, he follows him and participates in his crazy adventures in hopes of receiving wealth and positions. In the process he chances on just enough to keep him continuing on his quest (in spite of all the negative things that befall him.)

There are also elaborate sub-stories within the story. (The "man who was recklessly curious" comes to mind.) At one time Sancho Panza becomes a governor (as part of a Duke's ruse.) He does a surprisingly good job, dispensing bits of wisdom and resolving some difficult cases. (He uncovers coins hid in a cane in one story. On another, he asks a woman to defend her virtue as well as she does her purse.)

Throughout these adventures, some of Don Quixote's friends try to cure their friend's madness. However, many of their attempts end up backfiring as he win's mock duels or manages to complete quests. Finally, near the end of the book, a friend (dressed as a knight) defeats Don Quixote in battle and forces him to give up Knight Errantry. Don Quixote then goes home and "repents" of his madness - and promptly dies. Perhaps his madness was all that was sustaining him.

The episodes (especially in the first book) are tied together well in a narrative. (Most also stand alone quite well.) As entertainment, it still works well today. There is also plenty of commentary on human nature as well as the society of Spain of Cervantes day. Altogether, this remains a classic.

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