Thursday, November 19, 2015

Don Quijote (by Miguel de Cervantes), Volume 2

I can't find where I originally read the quote, but apparently there's a maxim that you should read Don Quixote three times in your life -- once in youth to see how funny it is, once in middle age to see how sad it is, and once in old age to see how true it is. I love that.

Part two continues the meta-ness of part one -- and in fact ramps it up.  It was written a decade after part one, but in the interim, there was a false Don Quixote part two published. In the real part two, Cervantes's characters have heard of the false part two and explicitly complain about it. Also the ostensible "real" writer of part two, who is not Cervantes, takes a bigger role and is mentioned often. The book concludes with "his" words, in fact, rather than Cervantes's. 

There are a couple of other shifts in part two. One is that the side stories are now integrated into the main plot, so Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are involved in some way in almost all the action. Another is that Quixote's madness seems to ebb somewhat, and he starts to seem more rational, while Sancho says and does some wise things, becoming slightly less foolish.  (Also, Don Quixote calling himself a world-renowned knight errant is now kind of true, after the publication of part one, which means many of the characters in the novel have in fact heard of him and his exploits. Meta, meta, meta.)

Our loyalties shift even more because of the main antagonists of part two, the duke and duchess, who play a series of rather cruel tricks and pranks on the two protagonists -- we start to feel that if we see Quixote and Sancho purely as objects of humor, we are complicit in the way they are being treated by the duke and duchess.  At least this is my middle-aged reading of it! Maybe if I'd read it in youth I would just enjoy the humor of it.

The ending is also extremely powerful -- Don Quixote's friends attempt to trick him out of his madness, and it backfires. At the end we realize we were rooting for Quixote all along -- we wanted Sancho to disenchant Dulcinea, even if "the matchless Dulcinea del Toboso" has always been a figment of Don Quixote's imagination. We want Quixote to continue to be a knight errant, not to have to go home in mental, physical, and spiritual defeat.

My friend Chris asked me if this classic work is a must-read. I don't know. I think part two is much stronger than part one -- more unified -- and absolutely worth reading. However, first you have to get through part one, and I confess if this hadn't been a reading goal of mine, I might not have managed it. The downside is that it's a bit repetitive. Some girl who is the most beautiful girl who has ever been seen in all the world is in love with a low-class shepherd or something, and stuff happens, and they live happily ever after. Don Quixote does something crazy, Sancho spouts out a bunch of crazy (and amusing) proverbs. Over and over. I contrast it with something like War and Peace, which is equally an investment but never feels like a slog, and is wonderful from start to finish.

I am very glad I did read it though. It gave me so much more context for a major cultural touchstone, and the experience of reading it surprised me. I was absolutely moved by the ending, and by Quixote himself. The metatextualness of it seems far ahead of its time. Raffels's translation is excellent. And it was certainly the most major work of literature I can think of that I hadn't yet read, so it makes me happy to add this one to my mental trophy case.

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