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 Weekend Australian - Review - - FRONT PAGE - Peter Craven

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)

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