Friday, March 21, 2014

Tilting at Windmills

I have just completed a massive undertaking, reading the complete Don Quixote. The book is more than 1000 pages and contains around 775,000 words. It was written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in 1605 with the  second part written in 1615. It has been a widely read book through the ages and has taken on different interpretations and meanings in each of those ages.
It is not easy to read, in places, but one cannot help but recognize the brilliance in it. Is it social commentary, is it comedy, or is it a tragedy? Perhaps understanding Spanish culture and the times would put a different light on it, but after reading it now in 2014, I have to conclude that it is a comedy with some cruel twists. Even though it was written 400 years ago, the humour is relevant and so very clever in most places.
Don Quixote is a man who has been reading too many books on chivalry, most of which were fiction, and he seeks to revive the age of Knights errant when chivalry reined and knights would wander the countryside seeking to right the wrongs and rescue the downtrodden. He recruits a poor buffoon of a farmer as his squire by promising him governance of an island when they come across the right type of adventure which will reward them with power and riches.
The 'adventures' are hilarious and contrived, resulting from the fact that Don is delusional and quite frankly, mad. His madness is counterbalanced by his brilliance in communication, knowledge, and sage advice. When people meet him they are struck with both his brilliance and madness and then find themselves not being able to decide what he really is.
His 'squire' Sancho Panza, in the meanwhile, has some of Don's brilliance rub off on him and becomes one of the most droll characters in literature, spouting strings of proverbs at will, disconnected and having no meaning at all, but sounding rather lofty.
There is no shortage of adventure, ending always in bad fortune, and the list of characters who play cruel jokes on this duo is endless. All of Don Quixote's endeavours are done on behalf of his lady love, the incomparable Dolcinea del Toboso whom he has never even met, but she is very real to him. When Sancho tries to put an end to this fantasy by introducing him to a young woman who he says is Dolcinea, but in fact is an ugly village wench, Don is convinced that she has been enchanted and seeks to find a way to 'dis-enchant'  her and return her to full beauty. What ensues is a running joke throughout the novel and is very funny indeed.
In the end, and I thought sadly, Don Quixote returns to sanity on his death bed and rejects the books of chivalry that lead him to the  ruinous end of life. It was sad because the crazy mad Don is the one we grew to love and root for throughout the book. It is as though our dreams and fantasies, which often keep us going in the harsh realities of life, are suddenly taken away from us and all that is left is the harsh light of day and the mundane challenges of everyday life.
Perhaps most of us have a desire to 'hit the road' as Don and Sancho did, with nothing more than a suit of armour, an old horse, and a saddlebag with cheese and bread, seeking adventure, whatever may befall. The adventure may be real or imagined, but the freedom in seeking, and not caring what others may think, makes it all worthwhile.
This book is not for everyone, but rewards the reader who perseveres. Taken as a whole, I give this classic a
3 1/2 star rating.      

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