Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes.

I always knew I would love Don Quixote because of the amusing and surreal bits and pieces that had been mentioned to me over the years. Because of the length and comittment to the cause required by the novel I knew I had to find the right time. So, a holiday in Spain seemed to be perfect, and it was, as I did want to be completely focused and consumed by the world of Quixote and Panza in the sun and heat of Spanish lands.

The novel is split into two parts each were published a decade apart. The second part is more controlled (if controlled is the right word) and the writing seems better and smoother. Again it is difficult to really assess this in translation. The first part jumps all over the place and has several stories within stories and is less about Panza and Quixote than part  two. In the first, anything can happen, and the two characters frequently overstep the line due to their madness and sanity which they possess in equal measure. Panza has a different type of madness which seems to grow as the novel progresses – maybe due to the association with Quixote. I can see why people have been entranced by the book since 1605 when part one was written. The humour transcends the centuries and cultures. The world of Cervantes is alien to us in the way that the world of the Knights Errant is ridiculous to the readers of Cervantes day. Then and now readers are drawn into Quixote’s world and marvel and his madness and intelligence, and Panza’s proverbs.

The second book I liked less because everyone knows about Quixote due to the first part being published and authored by Cede Hamete Benegeli – so meta-fiction very definitely meets knight errantry. Also, the extended period at the Duke and Duchesses residence is not very exciting – after this however it picks up and there is a return to form. The characters seem a little more typecast too:  Cervantes may have promoted the elements of the novel that his audience liked from part one and focused on these. There are far more Panzaian proverbs and there are no separate stories within the story of part two as he was criticised after the first volume for distracting the reader with these. In my opinion, the edges, and the fact you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next does give part one the sharpness and steel that part two lacks. Having said this, in totality there is nothing I have ever read quite like Don Quixote. All other modern picaresque fantasies are just shoots from the tree grown by Cervantes.

Part one is an absolute masterwork. There are some fantastic turns of phrase and nearly every sentence is loaded and perfectly formed. I must say I loved some of Panza’s proverbs. We should all pick our time when we begin our journey with Don Quixote, mine took five weeks and I can see that I will be returning for shorter skirmishes with rereads of certain episodes.

Following are some quotes from the novel that I thought were great (and there are a multitude more):

“I didn’t deserve to leave in this way; but man proposes and God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him, and time changes the rhyme, and nobody should say, ‘That’s water I won’t drink,’ because you’re in a place where you think there’s bacon, and you don’t even find a nail; God understands me, and that’s enough, and I’ll say no more, though I could.” [Panza]
 
“He’s doing the right thing,” said Sancho Panza, “because if you give the cat what you were going to give to the mouse, your troubles will be over.” [Panza]
 
“May God hear and sin be deaf,” said Sancho.
 
“There can be no doubt,” said Sancho, “that this demon is a decent man and a good Christian, because otherwise he wouldn’t swear by God and my conscience. Now I think there must be good people even down in hell.”
 

And finally:

“…the benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?”

 

Note: translation is important and Edith Grossman’s translation is excellent. The footnotes are thorough too.


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On Voluntary Servitude

By Étienne de la Boétie.
It is amazing that something written so long ago in the 16th century can be so relevant today. Particularly when the message is political. In a world where political ideas and concepts seem to be fashionable for two minutes, and then are discarded, the enduring legacy of de la Boétie is quite astonishing. De la Boétie (it is said) was Montaigne’s mentor and much of the reason he is still known and read today could be put down to Montaigne’s championing of him after his death. On Voluntary Servitude is de la Boétie’s most known work and it has been proposed that he wrote this when he was eighteen. If this is true then he really had a precocious genius. The basic idea of the the tract, which has been taken up by an array of democrats, anarchists, protestant reformists and even Tolstoy and Gandi over the years, is as follows:

“If a tyrant is one man and his subjects are many, why do they consent to their own enslavement?”

“ . . . obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement.”

So, basically, he states that those tyrants in power are there by virtue of the support of the people. If this support is withdrawn non-violently then they will be defeated. The Discourse On Voluntary Servitude is an interesting and thought provoking read as de la Boétie ponders the vagaries of the central premise. You can find it in the public domain – take a look.

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