To appreciate the manifold forms the novel can take today, the reader should turn to Miguel Cervantes’ novel, Part I and Part II of El Ingenioso Hidalgo de la Mancha. I have returned to it many times, first as a Spanish-language student at Northern Illinois University where I took a semester course dedicated to each part. That was 1965. At age 74, I return to it once again in the English translation by Edith Grossman. A great book continues to offer new delights and insights upon each successive reading. This time my fascination focused on the treatment of the Moors and the theme of playacting in the novel.
Cervantes says that the source of the story of Don Quixote derives from an Arab text written by Cid Hamete Benengeli, which he has translated into Castellan. Why does Cervantes use this subterfuge? Clearly, he has an interest in the Moriscos and Islamic culture. The Moorish presence is felt even then when his book is published in 1609. That year King Phillip III decrees the final expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain. Cervantes includes the stories of Zoraida, the Moorish woman, and of Ricote, Sancho Panza’s Morisco neighbor who is forced into exile. Cervantes witnessed first-hand ethnic cleansing. Although he may recoil at its cruelty, he probably recognizes that it was implemented to prevent collaboration with the Turks threatening the Spanish coast. On the surface, it appears he does not oppose their forced removal but considers it a necessary measure because they are a suspected third column within the country. Yet it is not so simple as Cervantes also writes with compassion for Ricote who is separated from his daughter Ana Felix. Love knows no ethnic bounds for Don Gregorio, a Christian, follows her to North Africa. Certainly, Cervantes’ participation in the Battle of Lepanto and his imprisonment in Algiers must have given him some understanding of different cultures and a greater sensitivity to the commonality of all mankind. Has the Spanish Crown’s pursuit of purity of blood and of religion begun to strike him as an absurdity?
On this reading, the idea occurs to me that Don Quixote could have been playacting all along. If other characters think to play tricks on him, maybe he in the end is the greater trickster, making others believe he is crazy when he really is not. Maybe all along he knows full well he is playing the knight errant for his own amusement. Does the old man sense death approaching and want to inject some adventure and excitement into his quiet, sedate life as a country gentleman? Does he feel his existence dull and the company of his niece and his housekeeper stultifying? Time is short, so he takes to the road in a sort of a last fling. Mad for adventure, he mounts Rocinante and enlists his sidekick Sancho Panza to experience some of the thrill and danger he has only read about in books; in short, to go in search of real life and not the imagined life of books. I wonder if the Duke and Duchess’s pranks fool him. Does he play along with the farce in order to continue his role as knight errant? He is not deluded yet his pretended delusion requires him to delude Sancho Panza, who is the willing accomplice in the play.
I believe that Cervantes wanted to illustrate that we all suffer from illusions, willingly or unwillingly. We persist in believing what we want to believe. To support those delusions we let others lie to us. We are fools only because we choose to be fools. Love is just another delusion just as foolish an obsession as the pretense of being a knight errant. Thus, all the tales of deluded or foolish lovers appear in the novel. Good intentions, such as Don Quixote’s aim to right wrongs and rescue the distressed go awry.
Sancho Panza assumes a larger role in Part II. In his simplicity, he shows more wisdom than his master, because he soon disavows the governorship that he covets is not the great prize he thought it would be. The burdens of leadership are more troublesome than his humble life as a peasant. He yearns to return to his wife and daughter. At the same time, he is clever and ably plays along with Don Quixote. He successfully concocts a plan to administer the self-flagellation required to free Dulcinea from enchantment by striking under the cover of darkness, tree trunks instead of his buttocks. The sound of the lashes will make Don Quixote believe he has fulfilled his duty.
Both master and squire are given to reciting proverbs. Although Don Quixote admonishes Sancho frequently for the use of inappropriate proverbs, he himself shows the same predilection for proverbs. The dialogue between Sancho and Don Quixote provides some of the funniest parts of the novel. Indeed, the book is as funny as it was the first time I read it, and at some points strikes me more hilarious than I remember. The playful language is more apparent. The digressions to lengthy side stories are not as irritating but the source of newfound parallels and juxtapositions with the main plot. Each encounter with this book is rewarded with a deeper, richer reading.
The old hidalgo goes home to die in his bed, bequeathing his worldly wealth to his comrade in arms Sancho, his niece, and his housekeeper. Don Quixote’s death assures the author that no false sequel to his book can ever be written. In truth, no other novel quite like Don Quixote has ever appeared, although Cervantes paves the way for the novel to develop in multiple forms across Europe and beyond, showing glimmerings too of the emergence of South American magical realism.
Image: Don Quijote and Sancho Panza iron monuments located on top of a hill near Tandil, Buenos Aires, Argentina.