“Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” by Honore Daumier (1850) via Wikipedia
I’ve always loved the story of Don Quixote, the tall knight and the paunchy squire traveling the dusty roads of Spain following their delusions from misadventure to misadventure. Funny, though, I had actually never read the book until this summer.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of these characters that this most wonderful of road novels had permeated my conciousness long before I ever actually read it. Like most people, I was familiar with the windmill story, and I knew the characters as well from a pair of statues my dad keeps in his study, the tall, emaciated Knight with shield and lance standing next to a gloriously fat Sancho with his fingers tucked into his belt.
Finally reading Don Quixote (Edith Grossman’s translation), then, brought those statues to life (for that is how I pictured the characters) and took me on Don Quixote’s mad quest to right all wrongs and win glory for the beautiful (and imaginary) Dulcinea. For the past month, I wandered the roads with Don Quixote and Sancho, laughing at some of the most hysterical scenes and brilliant conversations I’ve ever read.
The conversations between knight and squire were my favorite parts. Don Quixote is learned, intelligent, thoughtful and completely nuts. Sancho is simple, illiterate, oftentimes foolish, yet quite witty and most often rational, though his dialog is peppered with endless series and half-remembered and incorrectly used proverbs. Despite it all, their friendship grows and draws the reader in to the point that when it finally all ends, I found myself wishing for another 1000 pages.
Don Quixote is more than a road novel, though. It’s as much about the power of literature and books as anything else. Don Quixote, having been driven mad reading bad chivalric romance novels, allows Cervantes ample opportunity to celebrate and question the power of the written word and through his crazed and gallant knight ask that age old question about the pen and the sword.
Cervantes’s style is playful, and in fact he is almost a character in the novel. I can see him sitting at his writing desk cackling with glee as he wrote the two books that comprise Don Quixote. Part I, written in 1605, is more fun than Part II (1615), but the second part is more interesting in many ways, especially since the characters are aware of the publication of the first part and take plenty of opportunities to discuss both the first part as well as the “false Quixote”, an unauthorized sequel that was published several years before the second part. This self-referential game that Cervantes engages in makes Don Quixote as much a novel about writing as reading.
Long before I reached the end of the book, I knew that Don Quixote had made my short list of favorite books of all time.