41 chapters into Don Quixote

October 1, 2020

Dorotea’s unspooling of her story – while we, along with the anguished Cardenio, guess who she might be – is the most gripping thing in the book yet.  (I read this rather than watch the first Trump/Biden debate, and I’m so glad.) Her speech when Fernando enters her room is stirring (“I am your subject, not your slave”); and she becomes the real leader of the quest to bring Don Quijote back from the mountains.  The story she makes up is wonderful, and funny; but compassionate rather than sneering-in-secret.  She is in every way a better person than Fernando, though of course for her own social status it’s best for her to find and marry him.  He may be unworthy of her, but Cervantes knows that in real-life love, and perhaps especially in marriage, more is needed than the knight’s “worthiness”, and maybe less is needed, if that “worthiness” means perfection.

The captive’s story turned out to grab my attention nearly as tightly as Dorothea’s, and it was just as charming.  Maybe it’s obvious and on-the-nose, but the captive’s story, for me, rather than affirming the recent speech in which our knight elevated action over intellectual activity, served for me to show how a real knight, and a real rescue, might look.  It’s meticulous and patient, and a team effort, obviously.  And though the captive is the “knight” and Zenaida the “damsel,” it’s Zoraida who sets it all in motion, her money that makes it possible, her plan that the knights build upon.  The “knights” are all slaves who have to free themselves as well as Zoraida.  Also, Zoraida is not fleeing from a bad country (suddenly in this story you see how the Moorish empire is so much more alive than 17th-century Spain) or even a bad family (her father seems to be a lovely man).  She’s not fleeing anything, but rather seeking something that long ago had been planted in her mind and heart, something that she can’t practice where she is.  She throws her handkerchief out the window to her waiting “knight”, but that trope and every other is subverted by Cervantes – yet he does this without destroying action, suspense, love, or longing.

Don Quijote’s speech in Vol. I, ch. 21 gives a plot summary of the way such a tale was typically told in books of chivalry.

Dorotea invents a giant and names him Pandafilando [threadspinner] de la Fosca Vista, which is Crosseyed Pandafilando in Raffel.  This is funny, especially when Dorotea says later that Don Quijote will come face-to-face with Crosseyed Pandafilando, but Grossman is even better:  “Pandafilando of the Gloomy Glance.”

So far I find all of these side-stories, and side-characters, more interesting than our knight, at least in terms of grabbing my attention (the novel really came alive for me with Marcela’s appearance).  Partly, I admit, it’s because all these side stories provide the “soap opera” material of the novel; love and sex are always interesting.  You might even say that all this is the “chivalry” material of the novel. 

But in one thing Don Quijote remains set apart from all the characters surrounding him.  The others, they are attractive and compel my attention easily; and I can understand them; but our knight, I still don’t understand.  He’s a mystery and a continuing challenge, and still so locked into his fantasies that he exasperates me.  Me deja desesperado.

Then again, maybe we’re meant to feel that way, and for Sancho to express what we feel.  The way he talks to his master, whenever he’s fed up with him, is immensely welcome, and often the funniest thing in the book.

Cervantes likes to break up his side-stories, and, if necessary, to tie them together later.  The captive’s story was told entirely in one stretch.  But Don Quijote’s fight with the Basque was paused mid-action; the story of Anselmo, Lotario and Camila is mostly told through, but with an interruption just before the conclusion of the story; Cardenio had told only half his story when Don Quijote started a fight with him about a book, so he has to finish it later.  And the latter story plainly lacks an ending, which we get, unexpectedly, through Dorotea.  And actually, we had gotten the very beginning of Cardenio’s story from goatherds, before we even met the man in question.

I wonder if that’s what the priest meant when he came upon “Galatea” in Don Quijote’s library and says of this book that Cervantes “starts some things, but he finishes nothing; we can only hope the second part, which he keeps promising, will set matters right and the book will earn the compassion now denied it.”

And in Vol. I, ch. 20, Don Quijote praises Sancho for telling a story and leaving it unfinished.

I love how Cervantes keeps showing up, Hitchcock-style, in his own novel.

Look at the compliment Melville gives our author in “Moby Dick”:

Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes.

Paul Gustave Doré

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