Four centuries later, Mike Gonzalez finds Don Quixote a strangely modern tragicomic hero.
’Tilting at windmills‘ - it‘s a phrase you often hear whenever people launch ferocious assaults at imaginary enemies. But perhaps not everyone remembers that the first man to charge at slowly turning sails was an elderly Spaniard wearing a pudding bowl on his head. Don Quixote was his name - and the only witness to this particular attack of lunacy was a plump peasant riding a donkey who found it impossible to convince the old man that these were not giants with flailing arms who needed to be brought down a peg or two. The reluctant witness was his squire, one Sancho Panza.
This incident is only a small door into the extraordinary world of the novel written in the early 17th century by Miguel de Cervantes, a one-armed tax collector disillusioned with his society and heavily in debt himself. The 1,000 pages he produced, at record speed, turned out to be one of the truly great works of world literature. Every age, every century, has produced its own translation. Every age has not just rediscovered, but in one sense reconstructed, Cervantes‘s great original. And the 21st century already has two new versions in English - one by John Rutherford and the other (much less convincing) American translation by Edith Grossman which has just been published.
Don Quixote, or to give it its full title The Tale of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, is in many ways a very modern story. Not so much in its content as because it begins by recognising that people exist in a material reality but make sense of it in terms of values and ideas. Quixote is an elderly man whose great love in life is reading novels of chivalry. The world inside his head is populated by knights, damsels in distress, giants and monsters - the mental universe of a medieval man. In that imaginary reality what drives people to act in one way or another is ideas of honour, chivalry, nobility and heroism.
In some ways these are ideas whose origin is in military virtues, and whose proofs are found in battle. Quixote makes a long speech in the novel explaining why arms are superior to learning, because the fighter risks his life while the intellectual risks only contradiction.
The comedy of the novel comes from the fact that, while Quixote‘s imagined universe is populated by these creatures from the tales that he read, the reality of Spain at the turn of the 17th century was much more like the world seen by Quixote‘s reluctant squire, Sancho Panza. In his world you measured success or failure on a balance of profit and loss. When he meets the old knight, and hears his cockeyed notions about the local barmaid (who Quixote has christened the Princess Dulcinea) or the broken down old nag the Ingenious Knight describes as his faithful stallion, he leaps to the conclusion that he is crazy.
It is the offer of a weekly wage, board and lodging that persuades him to stay - despite the frequent beatings and blanket tossings he‘s subjected to whenever the old knight decides to attack yet another group of travellers he has arbitrarily concluded are agents of evil. It‘s his own interests that motivate Sancho, and the prospect of a little hoard at the end of the journey.
And yet something curious happens as they make their way backwards and forwards across Spain‘s dry central plateau - Castilla-La Mancha. By the time the second volume of the novel is published, seven years after the first, Quixote and Panza find that they are famous and their adventures have gone before them. In a word, they are celebrities.
So when a duke and duchess persuade them to visit their estates and offer Sancho the governorship of an island, Balataria, they are flattered and convinced. Of course it is all a joke, and in the manner of a ‘reality show’ the governor’s new subjects, lining up to hear his judgments and disputes, are in on the act too. Yet Panza turns out to be a wise fool who has learned some important lessons from his irritating boss. His judgments are wise and insightful, and based on some of the values of honour and justice that he has learned from the fading knight.
When the two men finally return home, Quixote is exhausted and overwhelmed by reality. He sees his imaginary world invaded by the harsh realities of a world dominated by commerce, the market, exchange, and the values of profit and loss. The paradox, and the beautiful irony, is that Sancho has learned the opposite lesson, and understood something of the petty corruptions and the narrow vision that inform his own universe.
Four centuries later, and even at 1,000 pages, the battle to rediscover idealism in the face of a world that seems intent on weighing, measuring and packaging everything for sale seems irresistibly familiar.