Sunday, January 29, 2006

Spanish Inquisition: Part One

I am reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. In order to keep myself on task and so finish this 940 page tome, I have enlisted the support that your presence will provide to urge me to continue reading. I will post a record of my progress here at irregular intervals, as well as any comments and questions that are provoked by the text along the way.

I. Which treats of the frustration of the author as she reads of the quality and way of life of the famous knight Don Quixote de la Mancha and his squire Sancho Panza.

Since I first announced to you that I was reading Don Quixote I’ve barely progressed in my reading. I was at Chapter 19 a week ago and now I’m at Chapter 22. During this time I composed a few impatient questions, which might also serve as a partial summary of the novel so far:

Why does Sancho Panza follow Don Quixote? The narrator explains that Sancho is a labourer ‘without much salt in his brain-pan’. Don Quixote offers him the possibility of reward in the form of the governorship of a yet to be won isle and on this flimsy pretext Sancho Panza abandons his wife and children. Even in view of Sancho’s initial naïvety, it is not long before he is all too aware of Don Quixote’s delusional view of his surroundings. At the sight of ‘some thirty or forty windmills’ on a plain in the distance, Don Quixote says,

Look over there, friend Sancho Panza, where more than thirty monstrous giants appear. I intend to do battle with them and take all their lives. With their spoils we will begin to get rich, for this is a fair war, and it is a great service to God to wipe such a wicked brood from the face of the earth

Sancho cannot see the giants and regarding the view to which Don Quixote refers he says,

Take care your worship... those things over there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails, which are whirled round in the wind and make the millstone turn.

Don Quixote is convinced only that Sancho is not well-versed in the matter of adventures and so commends himself to his chosen muse, another product of his imagination, the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, before proceeding to attack the windmills in a ‘fierce and unequal battle’. As in most of his adventures Don Quixote falls off his horse, the long suffering Rocinante, and Sancho rushes over to his master’s prostrate body:

‘Oh my goodness! ... Didn’t I tell your worship to look what you were doing, for they were only windmills? Nobody could mistake them, unless he had windmills on the brain.’

Even after this exchange, Sancho still accompanies Don Quixote and, up to the point I have read, he does not question the veracity of the promise of vague rewards he is offered for his sacrifice as the errant knight’s squire. I am not entirely certain about what to make of Sancho Panza at this stage. I keep thinking of his wife and children. Does the family rely solely upon him for their income? Or does his wife routinely dismiss him as a useless scoundrel whom she and her children are better off without so she can go about the business of earning a living without catering to his various appetites, which seem to be substantial? Is Sancho as light in the head as Don Quixote? Or is he simply poor and understandably seduced by the prospect of a life in which all of his needs are met and more?

Another question which has nagged at me throughout the first chapters of Don Quixote arises from reading the translator’s introduction. J.M. Cohen writes that Don Quixote ‘even in his most preposterous battles with the here-and-now has always our loving sympathy’. Old DQ has elicited no such emotion from me. I am more inclined to agree with the next section of Cohen’s sentence: ‘too often we may have to hold our thumbs for him, as we might for some reckless child who has strayed on to an unrailed roof with a sheer drop to the street’. I would be only to pleased to hold my thumbs for an inattentive child but for this middle-aged man, I would not be compelled to raise a pinkie. What does DQ do that might invoke his readers’ sympathy? I am puzzled. He races about, charging up to people going about their business and demands that they acquit themselves to him. What, he wants to know, are they doing, so he may judge whether, as a knight errant, he will spear them with his sword or rush off to avenge them against some wrongdoer. The trouble is that DQ, thus far, has rarely waited to find out the character of the travellers he confronts, since they are so surprised and confounded by the sight and disposition of the knight, they react in a way that evokes an immediate attack by their inquisitor. As a matter of fact almost everyone who bears the wrath of the knight’s rush to arms has done nothing to warrant such treatment. Thus far, DQ has accused two St Benedict monks of being ‘perfidious scoundrels’ and drawn himself and Sancho into a sword fight with their attendants; he has charged a flock of sheep and its shepherds as if they were enemy knights, a battle in which one might say DQ deservedly lost his teeth; he has attacked a funeral procession, wounding its mourners by brandishing his lance and causing a white clad attendant to fall off his horse and break a leg; he has set upon a barber travelling between villages to steal his brass wash basin, convinced it’s a golden helmet to which only a knight such as himself has any right; and he has set loose a chain-gang of self-confessed convicts after injuring the sergeant employed to transport them.

On the website that Ms Tartan recommended, 400 Windmills, a contributor of one of the early posts feels sympathy for DQ because he sees that the knight, while misguided and clearly as mad as ‘batshit’, is seeking to uphold ideals that should be treasured in society i.e. championing the down-trodden common man [sic] and expressing love for our nearest and dearest. The writer condemns the actions of those who collude in DQ’s delusions for their own profit. It isn’t that I disagree with the latter statement, but DQ has just as much to take responsibility for. What do DQ’s actions amount to but an abdication for the well-being of those he encounters in his day to day existence and thus those to whom he owes the most. Here my thoughts return to Sancho, who invariably bears the brunt of DQ’s ill-considered adventures, not least by way of considerable and ongoing injury to his person.

I’ve read more of 400 Windmills than I’ve referred to here and it looks like many of the first impressions of Don Quixote that I’ve recounted are challenged ahead in the posts on that blog, as well as in the pages of the novel itself. I’m looking forward to having my initial impressions contested. I hope it will lead to some further appreciation of the central characters on my part. At the moment I feel as though I am distracted by the adverse effects of their actions on minor characters and those the book doesn’t introduce (or hasn’t yet) such as Sancho’s family. If I’m constantly annoyed at how self-absorbed DQ and SP are, I can’t see that I’ll ever come to care enough about them long enough in order to complete Cervantes’ opus.

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