Over the past 400 years much has been said about Don Quixote and his misadventures across Spain. It’s the greatest novel ever written, they say, but it’s hard to believe that such a wordy and aged text could still speak to the modern reader. And yet it does.
What caught me off guard initially was that the whole book is written in Cervantes’ voice, as if he is recounting a long lost story he has dug up from the archives. He is our guide through the tale as well as our translator from the ‘original text’. It’s a funny and clever way of lending tongue-in-cheek credibility to the story, much like the ‘based on a true story’ title card at the start of Fargo.
As the book enters its second part (part one was published in 1605, part two ten years later in 1615), Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza become aware that a book has been written about them. As they travel around they begin to encounter people who know of them through the same book we have just read. As they travel even further, they realise that ‘fake’ books have been written about them too, containing made-up stories of their exploits.
But what if the ‘author’ Cervantes is reading from (the Moorish Cide Hamete) is deliberately calling the other books fake to lend greater credibility to his own story? Just as Don Quixote never sees anything as others see it, this book is perhaps not quite what our narrator says it is.
There’s a tonal shift between the two parts of the book, the first sets up Quixote as a delusional knight and the second begins to take him seriously. Cervantes never quite lets us know what he thinks, but he does make a case for respecting Don Quixote as a man who stands firm by his beliefs no matter what the world thinks of him.
It took me 15 months to finish this novel, it’s massive and takes a bit of time to get in tune with the way people speak, but Don Quixote returns the effort you put into it twice over. As the story takes shape you realise just how clever Cervantes really was, and just how profound an impact he has had on modern western culture.