62 chapters into Don Quixote

October 4, 2020

My son thinks I’m reading “Donkey Hotee”. 

The book has never been funnier than in the first 7 chapters of Vol. II.  As always, it’s the dialogue that gets me the most, especially Sancho’s talks with his wife and with Don Quijote.

Cervantes is getting more creative and trying new things, and they all work.  He gives us Sancho talking to himself, Gollum-style.  In another chapter we get Sancho speaking so well that the narrator tells us the conversation is regarded as “apocryphal.” 

Then of course we’ve got the revelation from the college graduate that Don Quijote’s history as a knight is already in print, possibly as far away as Antwerp, translated into all the major languages of the world, only a month after Don Quijote’s return to his village.  He says himself that “there had not been time for his enemies’ blood to dry on his sword-blade.”  In this short time, a history containing, as Sancho tells us, episodes from their adventures that no one except our knight and squire could know about, has been investigated, written, printed, delivered widely, read completely by countless people, and critiqued extensively so that the college graduate knows readily what the various opinions and critiques about the book have been.  This is all so meta-absurd, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and deeply delicious.  Bravo to Cervantes in particular for including critiques from readers (concerning the donkey’s disappearance, Sancho’s found-money, the intrusion of the novella-within-the-novel, etc.)  This is not only funny, it makes you love the author.

Volume II followed 10 years after the first, in which time the first part did see widespread popularity.  To telescope everything into a month’s time is comical and absurd, but it’s also interesting to try and work out who and what Don Quijote and Sancho Panza are supposed to be, and who or what Cervantes is supposed to be to them.  Cervantes made himself a real character in the book, the author of certain real-life titles, which appear in Don Quijote’s library; he’s said to be friends with our priest; we also see a reference to him as a captive in North Africa.  But he is not said to be the author of this history that the college graduate is talking about.  The author is said to be Sidi Hamid Benengali [eggplant-shaped], a (fictional) Moorish historian, who had already been named as the source for the conclusion of the face-off between our knight and the Basque (Vol. I, Ch. 9).  Is Cervantes expecting us to accept Benengali as the author of the newly printed history?  Or is he winking, because “Benengali” is merely the pen-name of the book’s Miguel de Cervantes?

And how in heaven’s name would this Moorish historian, or any historian within the story, know all these things about Don Quijote?  The very existence of the newly printed history takes us into magical territory.  Previously, we’d heard of magical things like giants, but they were all in Don Quijote’s head.  Nothing magical was said actually to occur in our knight’s world – until this business about an omniscient history that’s been birthed and widely disseminated in three weeks flat.  All this makes more sense as a wink, from a narrator who somehow knows the story but is simply not telling us how he got his information, preferring to wink at us about a certain “Benengali.”

Still, that would only explain how the new history was investigated and written, not how it was published and disseminated so widely in one month’s time.  I don’t see how to take that as anything but magical.

I knew that this twist was coming, from the introduction.  I’d told my wife about it and she said it was just like a children’s story we have here, “We Are In A Book.”

In that story, our two protagonists, a pig and an elephant (a duo not so different from Sancho and his master), realize they are living within a book, and are able to see and speak to the reader through the “fourth wall.”  That is a little different from what Cervantes is doing, but how different, really?  Our knight and squire are not breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader, but they are clearly within a book that’s being written under magical rules, with a second volume “promised” but not yet “found.”  Clearly Cervantes is saying that Benengali hasn’t found the second volume because it’s still being created, by the characters.

I cannot help thinking of that great scene in “Spaceballs” where the crew starts watching their own movie.

I’ve been wondering how many really great novels make an appearance within other novels.  I mean we see characters in novels reading books all the time, including famous ones like the Bible; and our knight, of course, reads books of chivalry.  But those are not novels.  How often do we see characters in a novel reading another novel – I mean, a famous one?  Well we now have one answer:  in “Don Quixote,” people are reading “Don Quixote.”  But how often does this happen?  How often would you expect to see a Starbuck, for example, pulling out a copy of “Don Quixote”? 

This past summer, my kids read the “Bone” graphic novel by Jeff Smith, in which the main character is reading “Moby-Dick”; and Melville’s novel is not just a prop there but a serious part of the story.  But I can’t recall other examples at the moment. 

During quarantine our family has been watching a lot of “Little House on the Prairie” and reading some of the novels. Surely in the latter, some of the characters must be reading famous novels of their time period – but Wilder’s books were based on real people.  What I’m talking about is a pure novelist daring to enfold a great novel of the past into their own fiction – almost as if implying, “My story is larger than yours.”  It’s got to happen; it can’t be that rare.  It certainly must happen when the main character of the novel is said, like Don Quijote, to be a prolific reader. 

Sancho tells his master that people basically think three things about him:  “Some say, ‘He’s crazy, but funny,’ and others say, ‘He’s brave, but unlucky,’ and still others, ‘He’s gallant, but he’s got a lot of gall.’”  In my notes on Vol. I, I was basically expressing the third view.  When he went home at the end of the first part, I was willing to go with view #1 and to credit him with being funny; but now that he’s on the road again and as bull-headed as ever, I’m back in the third camp.  I hear that our knight takes a lot of cruel beatings in Vol. II, and that the second part is darker and sadder than the first.  So let’s see what it brings.

I loved this, which reminded me of something my mother used to say:  “The best sauce in the world is hunger, and as the poor are never without that, they always eat with a relish.” (Vol. II, Ch. 5).  In the original:  “La mejor salsa del mundo es la hambre; y como ésta no falta a los pobres, siempre comen con gusto.” My mother passed onto us something her father used on her at dinnertime: “A buen hambre, no hay pan malo.”

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