Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Spanish Inquisition: Part Two

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.

II. Of the fortuitous meeting between the author and 400 Windmills, and other delightful discoveries

After all the irritation I expressed about the central characters in my previous post on Don Quixote, I only read another page before I was finally stirred to feel sympathy for Don Quixote, and in a few more chapters I was pleased to see Sancho Panza duly rewarded for his service to the knight errant.

Soon after DQ freed the chained galley slaves, he and Sancho were summarily attacked by the last prisoner he spoke to, Gines de Passamonte. In keeping with his naïve views on the proper conduct of knights errant and well-bred men in general, DQ asked de Passamonte to demonstrate some gratitude for his liberty by travelling to see Dulcinea del Toboso to tell her of the good deed her knight had done in her service. Of course the man refused, citing the threat of recapture if he were to travel on the main road, and of course DQ reacted badly to the refusal and once again started throwing around insults and brandishing his lance. DQ’s response was still a little silly for my liking, but I did feel sorry for him when the street savvy criminal fought back. De Passamonte is described as ‘being far from long-suffering’ and he begins his defence against DQ’s ire by pelting stones him and Sancho, backed up by the other freed prisoners:

All that remained were the ass and Rocinante, Sancho and Don Quixote; the ass pensively hanging his head and shaking his ears now and then, imagining that the storm of stones which had whizzed by his head had not yet ceased; Rocinante prostrate beside his master, for he had also been brought down by a stone; Sancho in his shirt and terrified of the Holy Brotherhood; and Don Quixote much distressed at finding himself so vilely treated by the very men for whom he had done so much.

I can almost see the poor donkey’s ears flopping dolefully, to say nothing of the whole sorry sight of the confused adventurers with clothes torn and their heads bruised and bleeding from where the stones struck them. Things get worse before they get better. Sancho’s donkey is stolen by de Passamonte, who encounters the master and his squire later, when they are asleep, recovering from the attack.

At this point I feared for poor Sancho even more. I thought, ‘not only is Sancho not getting paid for his efforts, but now he’s losing what few assets he does have’. To his credit Don Quixote promises to sign over three of his own asses to Sancho when they return home, but who could be sure given all the emptiness of his other promises? I did cheer when Sancho bemoaned:

In God’s name, Sir Knight of the Sad Countenance, I cannot endure or bear with patience some of the things your worship says. They make me think that all you tell me about chivalries and winning kingdoms and empires, and giving isles and doing other favours and mighty deeds, as knights errant do, must be just wind and lies, and all friction or fiction or whatever you call it. For to hear your worship say what a barber’s basin is Mambrino’s helmet, and persist in that error for more than four days, what can one think? Only that a man who persists in saying a thing like that must be cracked in the brain. I have the basin in the bag, all dented, and I’m taking it home to mend it and to use it for shaving, if God is so gracious as to let me live with my wife and children one day.

Alas, even after this outburst Sancho continues to be drawn into DQs reality, but I felt better that he hadn’t forgotten his family entirely, and not long before this the discovery of an abandoned saddlebag containing a number of gold coins served as a tangible payment for Sancho’s services thus far.

With the frustrations of my initial encounter with Don Quixote at least partly resolved, I’ve finally been enjoying the stories and adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza up to Chapter 31. DQ has been roaming semi-naked in the mountains, unsure of whether to throw himself at the inhospitable terrain or to sit on a rock and weep, all in homage to the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, of course. Meanwhile Sancho has been sent to find said Lady and seek a response to her knight’s sacrifices in her name. Before Sancho makes it to Toboso he runs into the priest and the barber from La Mancha, the same two responsible for desecrating DQ’s library after his first aborted quest. Together they concoct a plan to draw DQ from the mountains and back to La Mancha.

Another part of my new enjoyment of Don Quixote is derived from feeling more relaxed about reading this canonical text. I can attribute this shift to reading the comments on the 400 Windmills blog recommended by Ms Tartan. The comments there have reassured me that I’m not the only one to be daunted by Cervantes’s work and from this I have been inspired in my determination to finish the novel, however slow my progress. (With a more contemporary narrative progressing slowly might result in losing the thread of the plot, but the episodic structure of Don Quixote lends itself to this pace quite well) One contributor to 400 Windmills confessed that just reading the back cover of Don Quixote had him awe-struck. A plethora of literary luminaries are quoted as recommending DQ. Milan Kundera apparently writes, ‘the novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes’. Who wouldn’t feel embarrassed by the lack of civility that not comprehending the worth of so highly praised a novel would reveal? A comment from one of the blog’s readers is also useful on the spectre of Don Quixote. She quotes Vladimir Nabakov who maintained that the character of Don Quixote had been almost extricated from Cervantes’s writing; DQ ‘began to stray from his book almost as soon as he was invented’ by means of what the contributor calls ‘common parlance’—interpretations that rendered DQ a ‘watered-down’, ‘dotty old madman’—so that the novel became a ‘cruel and crude old book’.

Here, I suppose, it isn’t the interpretations by more contemporary authors that have reduced the figure of DQ (quite the opposite), I seem to have managed that all by myself. I’ll admit to feeling a lot like Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites when I read that one reader, after finishing only the preface, was already won over by Cervantes’s use of irony. Clearly I don’t know the meaning of irony, even when I see it.

To return to the earlier reader’s musings on Nabakov’s attempts to reinvigorate Don Quixote by encouraging people to read the novel themselves, I’m encouraged to think that I am beginning to glimpse the ‘richness, complexity, pathos, pain and humour—and violence’ of Don Quixote that she has appreciated.

I was also encouraged to read contributions by readers who had attempted to read DQ more than once. One woman hated DQ ‘intensely’ the first time she was required to read it at age 15, and she hadn’t changed her mind when she used Cliff’s Notes to write an essay on it in college. It took her 17 years to understand why her grandfather re-read it every few years. There are others who abandoned Don Quixote after less protracted relationships with the novel, sometimes simply because they got distracted by another book. I can’t remember why I stopped reading DQ before; I don’t even recall anything about what I did read. I know barely read 50 pages. I’m doing much better this time.

Related Posts
Spanish Inquisition: Part One
Tilting At Windmills

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