Monday, February 19, 2007

Miguel de Cervantes – ‘Don Quixote (First Part)’

This is my second go at Don Quixote; first time around I got so irritated with the translation’s anachronistic humour that I stopped 200 pages in. A book written in 1605 shouldn’t sound like it was written in 2005, and the Penguin edition of a few years back struggled so hard to maintain the humour and vivacity of the original that it sacrificed its tone. Edith Grossman’s version is much better, and whilst there is the odd Americanism on show (‘in back’ was one, for the British ‘in the back’ – no reason why American English shouldn’t be used, but these were the moments which sprung out at me as incongruously modern), she captures excellently Don Quixote’s gravitas and Sancho Panza’s flippancy, which is most of what is funny about Don Quixote. Get the gravitas wrong and the jokes don’t work: here, they are screamingly funny. The best section for this is Sancho’s description of Quixote’s love Dulcinea of Toboso, for whose sake he performs all his glorious deeds. He has been building her up from the beginning as the perfect woman, so Sancho has quite a lot to lay into in his engagingly cack handed way, and he doesn’t disappoint. The conquests in the first half of this volume are similarly hilarious, and not for a moment did it occur to me (until it was suggested) that this irresponsible use of arms or, more to the point, their use according to beliefs one has talked oneself into, works quite well as an illustration of recent US / UK foreign policy. The imagination transforming windmills into giants, and SCUD missiles into Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Unlike in Iraq, the destruction Don Quixote wreaks is extremely localised. He batters a few folk, gets battered many times over in return, and it’s really cartoon violence that you get here. The whole of the first part of the novel only covers 20 odd days, and he must be left half dead on five occasions at least. The small scale of the action compared to the epic sweep of the description is itself a comic device, and it reminded me of James Hogg’s The Three Perils of Man in this (the perils are War, Women and Witchcraft, by the way). There are other curious points of comparison. The warlock Michael Scott, mentioned in Don Quixote, is a character in Hogg’s novel (which is also uproariously funny on occasion), where the enchantments are not the product of madness, but real. Sancho warns Don Quixote that he is not, as he believes, under a spell, because if he were then he would have no appetite and no need to do ‘what nobody else can do for you’, and the idea is reminiscent of the passage in Hogg where Michael Scott provides for his guests by turning the mice which overrun his castle into a banquet. The guests eat and eat, but their appetite never diminishes. Both novels also deviate into lengthy short stories told by characters, and they both feature quite a bit of aimless wanderings, which I suppose makes them picaresque novels.

On the whole, the stories Hogg inserts are funnier than the main action. The opposite is true of Don Quixote, and for this reason they are a good deal less welcome. There is a joke even in this: while Don Quixote can invent damsels, giants and castles with the greatest of ease (any woman, wineskin / windmill or inn will do), he is largely absent when, by a series of staggering coincidences, no less than five damsels in varying states of distress, turn up at the inn where each of their (interconnecting) stories is told. The characters who have gathered around him – the priest, the barber, Cardenio, Don Fernando and Dorotea – do an implausible quantity of match making while Don Quixote sleeps or stands guard uselessly. Although Dorotea has a perfectly good plight of her own (Don Fernando has left her a ruined woman), she has to invent another involving a kingdom and a giant in order to secure Don Quixote’s interest. It is a good joke, but I got rather tired of the damsels, who are interchangeably good and beautiful.

Particularly unconvincing is Zoraida, a Moor who, against her upbringing and her entire culture, becomes a Christian and requires rescuing from her father’s house in Constantinople so that someone can transport her to a civilised country (i.e. Spain). How she’s reached this decision is not explained: one is left to assume that it is the conclusion anyone really ‘good’ will reach. There’s a pretty basic, partisan, racist morality at work here, which again strikes chords today. To be an ‘Old Christian’ is considered a good thing – just as now there is no question of taking a citizenship test if one’s grandparents were born in the UK. I found out the other day that one of mine wasn’t – should I worry?

After the tales are told, Don Quixote is finally coerced back to his village (on the way we get some more fights! Hurrah! And a sixth damsel – boo!), and there’s an unsubtle suggestion that another excursion followed once he’d recovered from his poundings, leaving the way open for the Second Part. I seem to have almost reached the end of this entry without mentioning how weird it is that the first novel in the western tradition should be a piece of meta fiction (a section near the end even discusses literary merit, and the way popular plays are dumbing down society). That tradition sure hit the ground running.

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