(This review also appears on the library page for Don Quixote)
This was my first encounter with Cervantes and his deluded knight, Don Quixote. Previously discouraged by its sheer heft (this is a long book – basically two novels in one volume), my new e-reader allowed me to take it on holiday without risk of hernia. I’m glad I did.
I found myself especially surprised at its sophistication, especially given that it’s nearly four hundred years old (the second volume was published in 1615). There’s a notion floating about that most of the interesting innovation in the novel form took place from the 19th century onwards, and I suppose I bought into that notion. My expectation – that Don Quixote would seem dated and quaint but historical and “worthy” – turned out to be very wide of the mark. This is pretty far from Balzac.
In the course of these two volumes, Cervantes seems to invent almost every structural innovation that has been used in the modern novel, and then some. These innovations range from obvious ones like story-within-a-story to intricate crossovers between novel and reality and stylistic parodies of then-popular genres.
To concentrate on this aspect of Don Quixote, however, is to unfairly portray it as a parade of gimmicks. The innovations aren’t distracting or clunky, and they’re balanced out by a rich vein of gritty historical detail that probably comes from Cervantes’ own history. I actually got a bit of a science-fiction buzz from the accounts of naval campaigns in the Mediterranean, which Cervantes actually fought in (he was captured and enslaved for several years). And this particular translation meticulously avoids introducing any olde-worlde mannerisms into Cervantes’ English, lending his voice a contemporary character that’s appropriate to the sophistication and “modernity” of the novel itself.
What about Don Quixote himself, and his quest? I found him more insane, more dangerous, more misguided than popular conceptions of the character led me to expect. The word “quixotic” means hopelessly idealistic, impractical and unrealistic. Quixote is all of these things but he’s insane too, and highly dangerous, even though he usually finds himself on the receiving end of severe violence after conflicts he initiates. It’s only towards the end that I started to feel sympathy with Quixote, with this reaching something of an extreme when he and Panza are separated by the deceptive aristocratic pranksters. All in all though Don Quixote is actually a pretty dangerous character and the novel is quite violent both physically and psychologically.
If you’re thinking about tackling Don Quixote I’d recommend you try to read it in electronic form, as the weight of the physical book would be discouraging. You’ll also benefit from the ability to follow footnotes and look up dictionary definitions. But be prepared for a long journey at the sides of these two unfortunate characters.