Don Quixote and the invention of doubt

Honouring national heroes may not come easily to the British, but the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April is surely one day when we can kick up our heels and sing “Hey Nonny” without shame. There is no other Briton of whom we can feel so straightforwardly proud. Whatever doubts hang over the details of Shakespeare’s life, few question the genius of the work nor the way it has enriched our language and culture. (See this issue’s “The way we were”.)
For Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who died on 22nd April 1616, the Spanish celebration will be more muted. Last year, forensic scientists proved that bone fragments buried at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid belonged to Cervantes, a discovery that might have given a fillip to this year’s commemoration. But the 2016 programme has come together late and grudgingly. Arguably, it’s easier to celebrate plays, which are performed in public, than novels, which are enjoyed alone. Besides, Spain has already had to make merry over Cervantes twice in just over a decade. In 2005, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first part of Don Quixote was marked by a 48-hour reading. Celebrities, children and politicians took turns to read, with fishermen joining in from their boats, and prisoners from their cells. Soldiers were given free copies to take on tours of duty, and were perhaps not grateful for the extra luggage (my copy weighs half a kilo). Last year, the 1615 publication of the novel’s second part was fêted with exhibitions, lectures, theatre performances and a new version in modern Spanish by poet Andrés Trapiello. His “dumbed-down” version inevitably drew criticism, but it went to number nine in the Spanish bestseller chart—just below Fifty Shades of Grey.
Nevertheless, with no official events announced until February, the commission charged with this year’s programme has been accused of dragging its feet. Darío Villanueva, Director of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, confessed to feeling twitchy about British plans for a Shakespeare “offensive” in 140 countries, “with all the power for global penetration that the British government has.” Javier Cercas, a novelist and professor of Spanish literature, has accused his country’s government of a contempt comparable to that meted out to Cervantes during his life. “I’ve often wondered whether we Spaniards really deserve Cervantes. Now I know that we don’t. In fact, let the English have him.” The newspaper El País seemed to agree, predicting a year of “mucho Shakespeare y poco Cervantes.” But José María Lassalle, the Secretary of State for Culture, shot back, declaring that his commission was planning something “more modern” than the British, without letting on what that was. We could have been back in the 1600s, sizing up each other’s galleons.
Spain’s relationship with its greatest writer is complicated, perhaps because his masterpiece, Don Quixote, has so often been held up as a mirror to the national psyche and returned an ambiguous reflection. If Cervantes meant his famous creation to represent the Spaniards, they are idealistic, courageous, obstinate, foolhardy fantasists. He never said he did mean that, but the novel’s unique position makes it irresistible to interpretation, driving successive generations to search for new truths within it.
Contemporary readers find particular meaning in the compassion shown towards a Muslim character who has been first made to convert by the Inquisition, and then expelled from Spain—as all Muslim converts were, in 1609. Last year, Spain offered citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492, but the offer wasn’t extended to the descendants of expelled Muslims. Meanwhile residents of the village Castrillo Matajudíos (“Kill Jews Camp”) voted to change the name, but Valle de Matamoros (“Kill Moors Valley”) has yet to follow suit. What would Cervantes say?
For the Spanish writer Sergio del Molino, it’s time to let Don Quixote be simply a book. “Its sacred, official status demands that anyone thinking about Spain from any intellectual or artistic perspective do so through the filter of Quixote. It’s the source of a lot of misunderstandings and problems.”
Part of the reason is timing: Don Quixote appeared at the moment the Spanish empire began to decline under Philip II’s paranoid reign and seemed to describe the flaws that would bring about its downfall. Over the next three centuries Spain lived off the New World, then lost it. Spain’s defeat in the last colony, Cuba, in 1898, prompted writers including Miguel de Unamuno to identify “Quixotry” as both the reason for the empire’s collapse, and the key to their country’s revival. The same mad bravery that propelled Christopher Columbus, Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés across the Atlantic had also brought Spain to its knees. That dichotomy continued into the 20th century, with both sides in the Civil War claiming that they were fighting for “Cervantes’s Spain.”
For non-Spanish readers, Don Quixote is essentially a very long novel about an impoverished country gentleman, Alonso Quixano, who loses his mind after reading too many chivalric romances. Styling himself “Don Quixote,” he sets off to have adventures with his friend Sancho Panza and quickly gets caught up in mayhem, mistaking windmills for giants, and hairy slatterns for princesses. He suffers horrible injuries and at the end of part one is forcibly taken home in a cage. So far, so slapstick.

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