"Don Quixote begins as a province, turns into Spain, and ends as a universe." -V.S. PritchettThe sensation is a bit like being drunk, a bit like mourning, and a dash of divine revelation all at the same time. A few times in one's life, one finishes a book with the realization that they have just finished one of the greatest books that they shall have the pleasure of reading in their lifetime. While one might read that book again, one will never read it again for the first time.
I had that last night as I finished Don Quixote and, in spite of the fact that the series I am working through comprises, by all accounts, some of the greatest books ever written, it has been a long time since I've felt this, for lack of a better term, close to the holy as I finished a book. The last time I can remember is Djuna Barnes' Nightwood. I sort of stare off blankly for the rest of the evening, as if my brain says, "Well, there you go! You're not getting anything else out of me today."
In this book is the wealth and sorrows of the human experience. All of the anguish and pathos of being an individual in this world is not only contained in this book, but readily experienced in the process of reading it. The horrors are tempered, as they are in real life, by beauty, companionship, virtue, and the lighter side of the absurdity of existence. It is beautiful in every way, one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. It is also, another rarity, one of the few books which found me laughing out loud in public while reading.
Another major theme, I think, would be how people ruin things for one another. There is the obvious one, masterfully woven into the plot by Cervantes, of the second rate knock-off non-canon sequel written by someone else after Cervantes original Part 1 and before (catalyzing even) Part 2. There is a long section of a particularly sadistic wealthy couple who essentially torture Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for their own amusement. That section contained one of my favorite passages of literature. They send poor Sancho off to be a governor for their own mocking and scoffing. He turns out to be as wise as Solomon. It is the apotheosis of the triumph of the common man.
Indeed, if you don't fall in love with the two main characters, check your pulse. Cervantes makes an open and shut case as to the near blasphemy of the "false Quixote" book simply by introducing us to the wonderful two main characters. I say that anyone who would dare besmirch the character of Sancho Panza deserves all of the treatment that Quixote would threaten to one who would impugn the beauty of Dulcinea. There is a part of me that is happy to see that, with a little digging, the "false Quixote" is still available in print as it is an important historical document, an important footnote to this piece. There is another part of me that is also happy to see that it seems like no one ever reads it.
I am going to a take a moment to say that the same diabolical duke and duchess who send Sancho to govern the insula are also the ones who introduce the talking head to the story. About 100 pages before the end of Part 2, there is a bust in a room which, when asked a question, will speak and answer the questions. The motif of prophecy is strong in Part 2. We saw the prophesying monkey last time and this latter section also features a parade of enchanters, including Merlin, who prophesy as well. It would seem that Cervantes has a skeptical view of prophecy, however possibly a poetic one as well. The prophets are charlatans, but the prophecies come true! Or rather, the lead characters do things because of the prophecies. They sort of willingly become the foot-soldiers of fate. I suspect there may be a cautionary lesson in there.
Laurie asked me how the book compares to Man of La Mancha (which we do need to address when talking about this piece now just as much as we need to make mention of the "false Quixote." I felt that Wasserman's Quixote is more valid than Avellaneda's, possibly because the subject matter is handled with such respect, nearly with kid gloves, in the musical.) We both loved that play and still do. I think that an entirely valid, separate work of art can be created out of inspiration from a first work of art. Laurie asked if Dulcinea is a character in the book. I said, "Well, kind of, but not in the specific, tangible way that she is in the musical. She is more of a presence or force than an actual character." She asked about parts of the play that come from the book. There is also the barber's pan. And the ending. Sort of. The ending presents a few problems.
It is not necessarily a spoiler to reveal that Don Quixote dies, as Cervantes tells you that he is going to die in the introduction. I think, for me, what was most remarkable was the staggering elevation Cervantes achieves. Quixote is a bit of a saint/Christ figure throughout, but in his ending he dies to, essentially, save us from more bad knock-off versions. Although that makes it sound so trite. Rather I might say that he dies on the altar of greatness.
One of the only times I've appeared in the local paper was when I was asked one of those "People on the street" questions outside of our post office. I was asked what, given my druthers, I would prefer to have written on my tombstone (assuming no one goes through with my wishes of donating my body to the crime school that leaves donated bodies out in a presumably secured wild area to observe the effects of long term exposure on corpses for the educational amelioration of future criminologists). I stammered out some nonsense on the spot, but I think in actuality I should like to borrow an abridgment of Quixote's own:
Reader, you need to read this book. You need to get a copy of the Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote and read it while the sun still shines on you. For your own sake. You will be a better person for it."It was his great good fortune to live a madman, and die sane."