THE LEGACY OF CERVANTES’S GREAT HERO, 400 YEARS ON
No wonder Spain is thrilled to have found the bones of the man who created Don Quixote, writes
The Spaniards think they have discovered the bones of Miguel de Cervantes, the man who wrote Don Quixote. They can’t find the left hand, which in life was so damaged its owner could not use it. They don’t know which of the shards and fragments unearthed at the Convento de las Monjas Trinitarias Descalzas formed the skeleton of the man who fought the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 (where he suffered the wounds to his left arm) and who four years later was captured by pirates in Algiers.
He was held for five years, until the good sisters of the Barefoot Trinitarians, an aristocratic group of nuns, found the ransom for his release. Then, many years later, almost as if he were just another lame old soldier, they buried him at their convent.
But the Spanish, who with their infra-red cameras and 3-D scanners and radar equipment have been at work on these bones for almost a year, are certain, and jubilant in their certitude. On March 17 historian Fernando de Prado announced that some of the bones were indeed those of Cervantes. There is no living descendant for a DNA identification but the lid of the coffin in the crypt says MC and the clothes seem to be those of his wife. “He’s there,” de Prado said. “We know that some of these bones belong to Cervantes.” So why the big deal? Well, Don Quixote is the first and arguably the greatest novel conjured by the human imagination, and the second, concluding, part of this story of an old man who thinks he is a great knight sallying forth to adventures was published 400 years ago in 1615.
The Spanish Armada did not succeed in conquering England but Don Quixote did. The first part of the great masterwork of the Spanish-speaking peoples was written in the same year as King Lear (1605) and within a couple of years Irishman Thomas Shelton translated it; as Shakespeare lay dying in Stratford (at almost the same instant as his Spanish peer), Shelton was at work on the rest of Don Quixote.
The greatest compliment a culture can pay to the classics of its literature is to translate them into other forms. No praise is higher than to turn them into folk stories and fairytales. I first read (or had read to me) Don Quixote in some little pocket hardback, with pictures by Arthur Rackham or Walter Hodges. As a small child I was taken to see Grigori Kozintsev’s 1957 film with the great Nikolai Cherkasov (Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible) as the old tilter at windmills.
At 20 I saw Robert Helpmann as a Don of apparitional frailty in the ballet, his dancing as lame as the Don’s attempts at feats of arms while Rudolf Nureyev whirled around him with the magic of his genius and prowess.
I saw the great bass baritone Richard Van Allan sing in Massenet’s Don Quichotte and everyone knows The Impossible Dream from the musical Man of La Mancha, which was filmed with Peter O’Toole as the Don. Another great high comedian, Rex Harrison, did Don Quixote on British television and Alec Guinness did Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, which is his great homage to the idea of the saintly simpleton, the sublime madman who insists on the sacredness of what can be imagined.
The Russians told Geoffrey Rush he should play Don Quixote (after they saw him do Gogol’s Diary of a Madman), and he should: the man who played Shakespeare’s Fool to Warren Mitchell’s King Lear — and is about to play the king himself — would bring a world of spidery physical comedy and a sublime clowning to this exercise in unstable hilarities, so weird and wonderful that they turn into something else.
Paul Scofield, the greatest Lear of his generation, the man who did it directed by Peter Brook on stage and screen, played Don Quixote
May 2-3, 2015 in a version based on Shelton’s original translation and something strange happened. The greatest prose work of the European Renaissance didn’t sound like prose on stage, it sounded like verse. And, of course, that’s close to the centre of the paradox of this towering work of literature about the enigma of the ridiculous.
Don Quixote is a great novel about an old nut case who has a head full of the old tales of chivalry, of knights in armour saving damsels in distress and swooping around the countryside in the cause of honour.
It’s the Renaissance’s mocking wave of farewell to the old medieval romance of chivalry, to everything that’s summoned up for us by King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, by Le Morte d’Arthur and all that derring-do. But is it? Is it really?
Albert Camus said once that the greatest art, the art of tragedy, comes from periods of transition. And the Renaissance — the period that encompasses everyone from Michelangelo to Shakespeare — of which Don Quixote is the supreme comic epic, the longest and most comprehensive literary masterwork, is not the period of the great medieval cathedrals or the Arthurian stories Malory put together, yet how far it is from the Enlightenment world of neoclassicism and rationalism that came after it.
The Sistine Chapel and Macbeth are haunted by all the spirits in the world and so is Don Quixote. Look at that most famous of Don Quixote’s adventures, the one that resounds so deeply in our culture that it has given us the phrase “tilting at windmills”: As they were thus discoursing, they discovered some thirty or forty windmills that are in that plain; and, so as the Knight had spied them, ‘‘Fortune,’’ cried he, ‘‘directs our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Look yonder, friend Sancho, there are at least thirty outrageous giants, whom I intend to encounter; and, having deprived them of life, we will begin to enrich ourselves with their spoils for they are lawful prize; and the extirpation of that cursed brood will be an acceptable service to Heaven.’’ ‘‘What giants?’’ quoth Sancho Panza. ‘‘Those whom thou seest yonder,’’ answered Don Quixote. ‘‘with their longextended arms; some of that detested race have arms of so immense a size that sometimes they reach two leagues in length.’’ ‘‘Pray, look better, sir,’’ quoth Sancho; ‘‘those things yonder are no giants, but windmills, and the arms you fancy, are their sails, which, being whirled about by the wind, make the mill go.’’
And what happens? The Don and his old nag Rosinante rush at the windmill: the wind whirls and the lance is shivered. Well, didn’t he say they were windmills, his sensible squire asks.
“Peace, friend Sancho,” replies Don Quixote, “There is nothing so subject to the inconstancy
DON QUIXOTE IS THE SUPREME COMIC EPIC, THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE MASTERWORK
of fortune as war. I am verily persuaded that cursed necromancer Freston … has transformed these giants into windmills …” So everything that defies Don Quixote’s dreams of romance, every assertion of the reality of the world and the absolute denial of fantasy becomes the workings of some malignant black magical force.
It makes perfect sense in terms of Don Quixote’s besetting madness. It’s even, at some level, irrefutable because even though the whole sunburnt, bread and cheese, bustling donkey-riding mundanity of Sancho Panza’s world is evoked at every point with all its wacky slapstick comedy, the most real thing in this great work of a thousand realities is the delusional Don in his makeshift improvised armour and his head full of the rubbish of romance.
His own damsel, his glorious Dulcinea, is in fact a girl who salts pork, an ordinary, hefty girl who sweats and trudges, but the Don’s vision of her is not to be denied.
Part of what makes Don Quixote so remarkable is the way Cervantes establishes the circumambient world of everyday life. Some shepherd is belting his assistant with his strap so the Don leaps in to right the wrong. He comes across a sort of chain gang of galley slaves en route and insists on freeing this mob of criminals because of the black evil that has been visited upon them.
This madness remains madness — and in practice it’s very funny — but it is also, at least in part, a critique of the cruelty of the world. And we don’t for a moment doubt that the Don himself is a figure of great nobility of spirit, of the deepest kind of poignancy, because everything that is ridiculous about him is inseparable from his unswerving desire to do good and follow the high dream.
In fact this makes for a tragicomic epic that is at the same time a transfigured version of how the Renaissance — in a way we find cruel — thought mad people, the mentally ill, could be funny and entertaining.
There is also that ambivalence you get in the later (and the greatest) of Shakespeare’s fools, Feste in Twelfth Night or the Fool in King Lear, where the introspection and melancholy of the professional comedian — the ability to look into the abyss and quip back — is built into the characterisation.
With Don Quixote it’s as if the Don, in his delusions, can outstare the lightning. He is an old, frail, honourable man constantly pushing it all uphill and confounded by the gap between what he imagines and what turns out to be the case, but defending at every point against the fact the dream world of his conception is inconceivable.
So the barber’s basin becomes the golden helmet of Mambrino to the poor old knight. There is even a sequence where Sancho puts curds in Don Quixote’s helmet so that, when he puts it on, he imagines his brains are pouring out of his head.
One of the grandeurs of Cervantes is that he can represent all manner of grotesqueries as well as every sort of earthiness in this allencompassing work, which is at the same time one of the most convincing panoramas put into words of a particular middling world — the world of Spain at the height of its powers, fresh from its conquests of the New World, but presented here through the lives of ordinary people: the curate (in fact the parish priest) who worries about Don Quixote’s condition, the barber, the niece.
It’s a world seen in detail through its common folk who became the delight of the whole of Europe — Don Quixote was a bestseller in German and French at the same time Shelton’s version was appearing in English — and the image of the deluded knight who finds his truth in his madness and his fat, close-to-the-ground squire who follows him like a destiny touched some deep chord in that just emerging European reading public.
It’s interesting how much the world too of sub-literate shrewdness, of a society that won’t accept madness but honours the afflicted and bows down to the sensitive, to the great ones touched by Allah, as the Arabs say, is incarnated in the figure of Don Quixote’s squire. Sancho Panza is one of the supreme dummies in litera- ture, a figure to put with Shakespeare’s donkey of a clown, Bottom, and with James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.
Here is the forever reasonable voice of the dimwitted, never less than lovable Sancho in a bit of part two of Don Quixote, telling the Don what is what in one of the endless dialogues between stupid common sense and transfigured derangement that pepper the book like the wisdom of the world. “Why then,’’ quoth Sancho Panza, ‘‘first and foremost you are to know that the common people take you for a downright madman, and me for one that has not much guts in his brains. The gentry say that not being content to keep within the bounds of gentility, you have taken upon you to be a Don and set up for a knight.”
This is the commonly cited 1700 translation by Peter Anthony Motteux. Don Quixote was also translated later in the 18th-century by novelist Tobias Smollett, whose version is much admired by Salman Rushdie and who is very adept at capturing Cervantes’s jokes.
But Don Quixote has been well served by its translators. Shelton makes Cervantes sound like the kind of free verse Shakespeare called prose. And the mid 20th-century translation by JM Cohen is fine and elegant. It was admired by poet John Berryman and is the one quoted by Greene in Monsignor Quixote. Then in 2004 Edith Grossman, the translator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, did her own version of the greatest book in the Spanish language without which none of the magic or the realism, or their collision, would be possible.
But Don Quixote is great in any translation just as the great artists’ interpretations of him — whether it’s a painting by Daumier or those famous ink squiggles of Picasso — seem possessed by whatever genius it was, whatever imp of comedy or merciful angel of Spanish Catholicism, that whispered in the ear of this old soldier of a writer whose bones they found in that churchyard in Madrid and who invented and rendered at once poetic and absurd the form of literature that has dominated our lives for the past 400 years.
Don Quixote is the most lovable loon in literature and a character of flawed but extraordinary majesty. He really is a perfect, gentle knight, to use Chaucer’s phrase. And Sancho Panza is the dependable character with his kindly feet on the earthy ground who defends him as if he had no greater destiny than to minister to this headstrong, helpless caricature of a character whose characterisation is the greatest image we have of that folly which is close to God. It’s hard to resist quoting the beginning of the last chapter of the second part of Don Qui
xote in the Motteux version, which captures the swiftness but also the plangency of this great comic epic that is both a mockery and a high requiem mass for the tragedy of all we deem mad, for every sensibility that has been wounded to the point of mistaking dreams and nightmares for the world we know and dread: As all human things, especially the lives of men, are transitory, their very beginnings being but steps to their dissolution; so Don Quixote who was no way exempted from the common fate was snatched away by death when he least expected it. Whether his sickness was the effect of his melancholy reflections or whether it was so preordained by Heaven, most certain it is he was seized with a violent fever that confined him in his bed six days.
How like and unlike the realism of the novel Cervantes ushered in.
There are a thousand other ways of talking about this great anatomy of a book.
Apart from anything else, it’s said to derive, Cervantes tells us, from the tales of Moorish storyteller Cide Hamete Benengeli. But that’s another labyrinth and another wily and bewildering yoke.
Just remember that later Spanish literature comes out from under the magic carpet of the make-believe knight whose loyal squire tells him to call himself the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. And what sadness and what laughter, what savagery and what wisdom there is inside this book.
No wonder the Spaniards have used every iota of modern science to track down the bones of their most sublime writer, almost as if he were a great saint and they wanted to reverence his relics.
Nothing about Cervantes’s life was successful. He worked on the Armada but didn’t sail with it, he wanted a commission to the New World but didn’t get it, he was an unsuccessful tax collector and was at one stage locked up for it. And it’s typical — it’s even a bit quixotic — that the friendly shoeless sisters should have misplaced his remains when they rebuilt their convent.
But the discovery of these relics is symbolic. What it points to is the revelation of Don Qui
xote as it turns 400. With typical bad luck, Cervantes never made much money from the Don — but how these bones now live. Pilgrims will revere them far into the future because with Don Quixote Cervantes dazzled the eyes of eternity.
Clockwise from left, Don Quixote in the
Mountains by Daumier (circa 1850); Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari in Man of
La Mancha; a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Madrid; Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra by Juan de Jauregui (1600)