Books are dangerous things. Not just the nonfiction ones which enlighten the mind and broaden the horizons, although those, too, can force their readers into vast terrifying territories. No, the really dangerous books are books of romance and adventure, those novels of passion and daring that inspire - nay even urge - even the meekest and most impoverished of souls to find meaning in life by fighting great battles, actual or imagined.
It’s funny that the novel which is often credited with creating the Western novelistic genre should also be the first book to decry the very dangers of reading. Although the twentieth century has had its glut of books such as Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell's 1984, it was not until Flaubert’s Madame Bovary that another author would set down in a novel such wonderful words about the dangers of reading too much. And dangers there definitely are!
Alonzo Quixano, an impoverished man possibly of the gentry (one is never quite sure) rises one day after reading too many romances. Driven mad by that other world where knights, courtly manners, the meaning of life, and greatness of soul are upheld and -- most importantly-- evident, he decides to change his name to Don Quixote de la Mancha. Putting on “armor” and “helmet” (at least that’s what he thinks his cardboard hat is), he sets out to seek a quest to do chivalrous deeds in the mundane world. Or is the world not so mundane?
As he travels, he meets royalty and clergy, rich and poor, fellow-travelers and stay-at-homes. Throughout, he is accompanied by Sancho Panza, who is quite his opposite: a realist who sees life as it is but who is too kindhearted to go about forcing his views on others. Sancho reminds me a bit of Sherlock Holmes' Watson, but whereas great men have worshiping sidekicks whose accounts of the great man's life are eagerly awaited, Sancho's assignment is perhaps a bit lower. Sancho is especially admirable in this regard, because if indeed Don Quixote is great, it is a greatness the world does not recognize.
The world Cervantes creates reflects the cross-section of a society moving from one type of world toward another, a world which is incapable of recognizing either itself or others because societal standards are changing. Cervantes seems to be concerned about this changing and societal flux. The glorious truths of dogmatic
religion and romantic chivalry may or may not work in the practical world where
money, power, and pragmatism are what really matter. In the pragmatic world, shrewdness, power, wealth, gender, and youth matter. Noble values are ridiculous and pitiable at best, dangerous at worst, and ugly realities whatever way one looks at them.
At this point in history, the Western world pretty much believes in freedom of thought and literacy.
Therefore, a Westerner might interpret Don Quixote as a book which invites readers to question reality, to juxtapose cultural and personal ideals, to find intellectual rest in the center of cultural change. A reader from another area of the world can easily find another meaning in the text and would in perfect intellectual honesty see a book which shows the madness of individuality and the inherent dangers of reading. Such are the effects of culture upon interpretation, and upon a book about interpretation. And such, also, is the nature of how we interpret our fellow human beings. Is Don Quixote a great soul in a small, mean-spirited, cruel world? Is this a book which is a male version of Madame Bovary? A story which is a pitiful depiction of an old man’s dementia? Is Cervantes on the side of his hero? Or does he really think there is bliss in avoiding ideals and the written spiritual and romantic books which indoctrinate? Quixotic types tend to be idealized as ineffectual dreamers, but Cervantes shows they can also be impatient with them. Or maybe simply mentally ill. And has he accomplished anything or truly changed anyone at all?
The book is a translation into English and will probably have the failings and glories of works that are translated. This reviewer, however, is not bilingual and cannot either adequately praise or challenge any aspect of this translation. I will say, though, that the language flows wonderfully and the playful, slightly cynical spirit of the book is maintained. Nor were there any places where the writing felt clunky or intruded upon by the translator. The accompanying introduction by Harold Bloom is also very insightful and helpful.
Cervantes writes about his time and about the Spanish character, but he also writes about human nature, universal hopes, general historical and social factors. Whatever one thinks of Don Quixote, this extremely long novel is a classic and its arguments for – or – the worth of literature and other subjects “written” in stone are still alive on planet Earth. And La Mancha...wherever that may be.