Don Quixote: The unlikely conquistador

Miguel de Cervantes' story of an eccentric knight has been a global best-seller since it was published 400 years ago. And his native Spain is determined to celebrate in style, reports Elizabeth Nash
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It is 400 years since the first hurried, shoddy editions of Miguel de Cervantes' masterwork, Don Quixote, rolled off the press, and Spain has thrown itself into a year-long frenzy to commemorate the most popular fictional creation in world literature.

It is 400 years since the first hurried, shoddy editions of Miguel de Cervantes' masterwork, Don Quixote, rolled off the press, and Spain has thrown itself into a year-long frenzy to commemorate the most popular fictional creation in world literature.

From the moment the first volume of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha appeared in January 1605 it was a huge hit, to the astonishment of its creator, who had known only failure and disappointment. It tells of a country gentleman who, obsessed to the point of madness with books of chivalry, tries to imitate them and becomes disillusioned. Within a year the book went through three editions, two of them clandestine, and it was soon translated worldwide. Today it is the most widely read and translated book on the planet after the Bible. The first English translation, by Thomas Shelton, appeared in 1612 and the most recent, by Edith Grossman, this month. The work's unexpected success was some comfort to the author, 58 when it appeared, but he never made money from it and died in poverty a year after completing a sequel in 1615.

A mixture of reality and fantasy, the book chronicles the journeys and adventures of Don Quixote and his peasant squire, Sancho Panza. Alonso Quijano decides to become a knight errant and, assuming the name of Don Quixote de La Mancha, he mounts his nag, Rocinante, and heads out from his nameless village in the heart of Spain to right wrongs and protect the oppressed. In his delusions Quixote mistakes windmills for giants, inns for enchanted castles, flocks of sheep for armies, a horse trough for a baptismal font. He attacks and destroys a puppet theatre enacting a piece about capturing a princess, and dreams up Dulcinea, the damsel to whom he swears love and fidelity. Sancho knows his master is unhinged, but doggedly follows him on his barrel-bellied donkey. The pair change and develop as they wander along until Quixote realises his folly and returns home to die.

Long considered the finest work in Spanish, Don Quixote was voted by 100 writers in 2002 as the world's best work of fiction. Authors including Salman Rushdie, John le Carré, Milan Kundera, Nadine Gordimer, Carlos Fuentes and Norman Mailer put Don Quixote way ahead of Shakespeare's plays and epics by Dostoyevsky or Homer.

Cervantes developed his idea while imprisoned in the royal jail in Seville accused of tax fraud in the 1590s. Employed as tax collector, the writer had lodged his cash with a banker who went bankrupt, then found he couldn't pay what he owed the Crown. He wrote his satirical romance in two parts in 1605 and 1615, and it blossomed beneath his quill as he wrote. Probably he intended the story to be a brief satire on medieval books of chivalry and knight errantry. Then it grew into a string of random encounters typical of the emerging genre of picaresque literature. But by creating Sancho Panza as Quixote's companion and foil, Cervantes opened the way to the long conversations that intersperse bursts of action. These captivating dialogues made the work into something quite new. Quixote and Sancho bicker and gossip like an old married couple as they amble across the calcined Spanish plain from one absurd adventure to the next. They cringe at each other's foolish utterances before strangers, then sigh with relief, even admit they've learnt something, when their partner comes out with something sensible.

They first appear as fairly two- dimensional polar opposites: Quixote the ageing madman who thinks he's a knight and throws himself into self-inflicted disasters, and Sancho the rustic buffoon, selfish and materialist. Sancho plays along with Don Quixote's fantasy only because his master promises to make him governor of an island. This was the moment in Spanish history when colonists were feverishly seizing islands in the Caribbean. In the course of their wanderings, each man reveals a contradictory side. Quixote has lucid moments, while Sancho becomes astute and wise.

With Quixote, Cervantes pioneered the modern novel, the literary prototype for journeys of self-discovery that was to evolve into today's road movie. The pair display a wit and idealism, wisdom and frailty that transcend time and place. George Orwell observed that everyone sees within themselves the intertwined strands of noble folly and base wisdom. "If you look into your own mind, which are you? Don Quixote or Sancho Panza?" Orwell asked.

How did Cervantes do this? How did this jobbing writer of plays, poems and short stories who was belittled by successful contemporaries such as Lope de Vega create his universal heroes?

What he lacked in formal education, he made up in painful experience. Born in 1547 in Alcala de Henares near Madrid, he enlisted as a soldier and fought against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571 where he lost his left hand. On the voyage home, he was taken into servitude in Algeria for five years, and after four failed attempts to escape, was freed only on the payment of a ransom.

He tramped the badlands of Andalusia, exacting tributes of grain, olive oil and money from hostile farmers to supply the Spanish Armada in its doomed campaign against Queen Elizabeth's England. And he was jailed more than once, during a lifetime of bad luck and fruitless struggles. At one point, in desperation, Cervantes applied to the court for a posting in the Indies, widely regarded as a sure-fire source of fortune and glory. He received a curt refusal, one of history's cruellest rejection slips: "Look around for something that suits you over here." The document is preserved in Seville's Indies Archive, repository of a state bureaucracy that spanned the world. By the time he came to write Don Quixote, Cervantes was battered by life.

In addition, he was the child of troubled times. Spain had passed its glorious peak as heart of a mighty maritime empire that produced a golden age of art and literature never to be equalled. Ruled by feeble monarchs, it slid towards decadence and uncertainty.

"Spain became a nation of perplexed and ill-defined people, engulfed by political and social crisis," said the Spanish historian Ricardo Garcia Carcel at the first of a huge programme of Quixote-related seminars that opened last week in Valladolid, where the writer briefly lived. "Cervantes' work directly reflected the unhappy history of Spain." It was a moment when Spaniards struggled to survive in a shapeless and threatening social order, while the imperial court still imposed its rigid customs and morals. People tried to reconcile appearance and reality, which is what Quixote is all about. Like the student idealists of 1968, Cervantes' twin heroes take their dreams for reality and believe in the reality of their dreams.

Sancho, succumbing to a fantasy of his own, is tricked into believing he has become governor of a mythical island, Barataria. He governs with a pragmatic wisdom that astounds everyone, then throws it in as not worth the pomp and sacrifice. In another episode, a running gag towards the end of the book, Quixote is persuaded that his love, Dulcinea, is bewitched and the spell can be broken only if Sancho whips himself. Sancho, affronted, refuses, until Quixote promises his squire payment for every lash, at which point Sancho agrees, but insists on conducting the penance at night, out of his master's sight. He then energetically flays the bark off the trees roundabout, groaning all the time. Quixote, anguished at the apparent suffering of his friend, relents and urges him to call off the operation.

"Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts bestowed by heaven on man; no treasures that the earth contains and the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, men can and should risk their lives and, in contrast, captivity is the worst evil that can befall them." Quixote makes this observation shortly before he recognises his delusions and becomes sane, only to fall into a decline and die. Those words, written by a man who had experienced incarceration, inspired the former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, who claimed to read the work every day. The Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa thinks that passage drives the book, and makes it applicable to every person at every stage of history anywhere.

Martin Amis once claimed it was unreadable. Was he battling with the 17th-century Spanish original, which although finely crafted - albeit written with the verve of someone creating on the wing - is heavy going? Or did he have a dud translation? William Faulkner was said to have read it every year. One expert recommends you read it thrice before you die, while another envies the treat in store for those who have yet to open it.

For centuries, almost every inn in Spain contained a tooled, leather-bound copy of Don Quixote that was pressed into the hands of any traveller able to read. The reader was then urged to entertain the rest of the company and while away long evenings with tales of the mishaps, foolish fancies and heroic dignity of the world's favourite travelling companions.

The year-long celebration has been backed by the Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who sees it as a way of promoting the jewel of Spanish culture worldwide. Spain's bookshops bulge with new editions, complete with CDs, complementary texts, travel guides and recipe books.

The region of Castilla-La Mancha alone has pledged nearly €70m (£48m) for art exhibitions, concerts, plays and thousands of commemorative activities. More than 600 miles of nature trails have been marked through towns mentioned in the novel. Pop concerts will be held in town squares, cloisters and other public spaces, and 30 Quixote-related plays will be performed in open-air theatres throughout the region in an evocation of the age. Exhibitions will be held of images of Quixote in art, including traditional regional ceramics, and watercolours by Salvador Dali painted for a 1945 edition.

"This celebration will reach every public library in every corner of the country," the Culture Minister, Carmen Calvo, promised. Companies will receive tax incentives to promote the book while schools are offered free new children's editions. "The most important tribute you can pay the book is to read it," said Ms Calvo, touching on the sombre reality that while almost everyone has a copy, most shy away from reading the hundreds of dense pages.

"Everyone has it on their bookshelf but not even a minority get through it," confessed Juan Victorio, medieval literature professor at Spain's National Open University, who first read it to his bedridden, illiterate grandfather as a child. "You need to be in a certain frame of mind ... and to have suffered at life's hands," before taking on Quixote, Mr Victorio reckons. "Its message is you're either mad or you'll end up mad," he says. "If you have goodness in your heart and want to help humanity you have to pretend you're mad for them to pay you any attention." Quixote was created by a troubled, life-buffeted writer in a world that was falling about his ears. The characters, like its creator, and probably most readers, strive to disentangle dreams and reality as they tackle life's difficulties. Cervantes had somehow accumulated a deep knowledge - and disdain - for the literature of his time, but wrote for ordinary folk rather than the educated elite. In the exchanges between Quixote and Sancho, Cervantes' language swings from elegant flights of rhetoric to earthy aphorisms familiar to any person. It's funny. There's a Spanish saying that if you come across a solitary person laughing they are either mad, or reading Don Quixote. You can dip into it at random. You never want it to end. Let's hope we're not sated with a year of overkill.

Elizabeth Nash's Cultural and Literary History of Seville will be published shortly by Signal

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