Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote
I read the Edith Grossman translation, generally the best-regarded in English. Cervantes’ style is easy enough that many Spanish students will read Cervantes in the original; my skills are no longer up to the task, if they ever were at all. Even in translation, Don Quixote is hilarious, tragic, and surprisingly postmodern. Quixote is obsessed with the adventure books in his library to point of losing his marbles. Convinced he is a noble errant knight, he goes off on heroic quests–“errant” being a term that describes more than Quixote’s mental state. An errant knight serves no king or noble; he is an independent operator.
Quixote tilts at windmills, confuses inns for castles, innkeepers’ daughters for princesses, prostitutes for noble ladies, and repeatedly gets beaten up in embarrassing ways. Sancho, his saner “squire,” tries and fails to be a voice of reason. But despite his occasional caustic remarks and threats to leave Quixote and go home to his family, Sancho clearly has some affection for his errant master, which adds a note of warmth to a story that could use it.
As a writer, Cervantes is fond of genre-hopping. He regularly takes breaks from adventure farce and has Quixote stay in the background while other characters act out stories of intrigue, romance, and more, often in humorously overdramatic fashion. Merlin, the wizard from King Arthur mythology, even puts in an appearance in part two.
Part two is actually a sequel, published ten years after part one. Another author published an unauthorized sequel in the interim, which may have prompted Cervantes to write his own official sequel. This controversy led to a type of postmodern irony that wouldn’t appear again in literature until the 20th century. Quixote, Sancho, and the other characters are aware of Part 1 and their literary fame. Quixote even wishes aloud that its author had left out some of the more humiliating beatings he took. The other characters chuckle at this while taking issue with their own portrayals. They also throw a few jabs at the unauthorized sequel. Cervantes, referring to himself as “the author,” even pokes some fun at himself. Near the end of the book, before a high seas adventure, Quixote even visits a print shop where one of the books being printed is part two of Don Quixote, adding further humor. As far as unofficial national novels go, Spain has done well in choosing not just a tragedy dressed as a comedy, but a clever one that spans multiple genres, uses almost every literary device and conceit Cervantes could think of, and foreshadowed modern literature and its self-aware postmodern turn.