Dostoevsky called Cervantes's most famous work, Don Quixote**, "the final and greatest utterance of the human mind". William Faulkner also said of Don Quixote, "I read that every year as some do the Bible". So, just how good is Cervantes's work, and is he deserving of such praise? And why isn't Cervantes enjoyed to such an extent, and in so many media, as Shakespeare?
The answer to the latter may lie in a number of places: language, cinematic qualities and the fact that to many Cervantes is a one trick pony. However, to those in the know, Cervantes is just as worthy of the praise heaped on Shakespeare.
Don Quixote is easily the most recognised of Cervantes's works and has been translated into 140 languagesᶧ. With so many translations of Don Quixote in circulation, it makes the argument that Cervantes's lack of popularity is due to being a non-English text rather weak. Indeed, Don Quixote is not easy to read in its original form, using archaic Spanish that makes it difficult even for Spanish speakers, but then the same holds true for Shakespeare who is equally challenging for a large proportion of English speakers. The answer must, therefore, lie elsewhere, and it is most likely that the problem is a lack of cinematic qualities.
Don Quixote is a is a series of small anecdotes which Trapiello, a translator of Don Quixote into modern Spanish, says "does not translate at all well into the language of the cinema. All films about Quixote have tried to be funny adn they have all failed".Shakespeare's plays, meanwhile, by their very nature lend themselves to film and they have formed the basis of over 1000 scripts. But what about Miguel de Cervantes's other works, are they as good as Don Quixote, or do they pale into insignificance beside it?
Cervantes' output was not minimal.: he wrote his first play, "Los Tratos de Argel", in the 1580s based on his experiences as a captive of pirates. He wrote dozens of other novels, plays, short stories and poems, as well as Don Quixote which was published in two parts - 1606 and 1615. His final novel, Los trabajhos de Persiles y Sigismunde, was published just days before his death in 1616. Ask the man on the street if he can name the author of these works and you'll most likely be greeted wiht blank faces. The truth is, outside of academic circles, few people know Cervantes as anything other than the author of Don Quixote. So what is exactly is Don Quixote, and why is it so highly rated?
The eponymous character, Don Quixote's full name was Alonso Quijano, an ageing lover of chivalric literature, who decides to become an knight errant. Setting off on his sallies on his old horse, Rocinante, with thoughts of his lady love Dulcinea spurring him on, Quixote picks up a squire in the form of Sancho Panza. To Sancho, he promises governorship of an island. the second part of the novel sees Quixote wrestling with the fact that he is now famous literary character due to the success of the first part of the novel.
The novel is both funny and full of pathos, as you follow the delusional old man on his adventures. Sancho Panza provides an earthy contrast to Quixote's imagination, although his dreams of becoming a governor seem as fanciful as Quixote's abilities as a knight errant. The reason that this seemingly innocuous story is so popular is that it combines the old-fashioned romance of mediaeval literature with parody, and the meta-text that looks back at traditional literature leading up to the time of writing and hints at the styles of writing that will come later. It is widely considered to be the first novel, the precursor to those of Defoe and Swift. particularly, it is a picaresque novel, a satirical look at the manner in which some live their lives. Many see the tilting at windmills episode as one that shows Cervantes mocking those who live by imagination rather than reality: however, I believe that this is not the whole of it. Quixote's reply to Sancho Panza seems to swipe at those who do not allow any sense of imagination and adventure into their lives, he is saying that you need a dose of imagination in the mix :
"Now look your grace", said Sancho, "What you see over there aren't any giants but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone."
"Obviously", replied Don Quixote, "you don't know much about adventures."Whichever way you look at it, the obsession of Don Quixote with works of chivalry can be applied to any who accept mythology over reality and are guided by it. Furthermore, the character of Don Quixote himself is not only mad through too much reading of chivalric books, but also intelligent and experienced. The juxtaposition of these two elements are present not only in the title's character, but there is a theme throughout the novel. Perhaps Cervantes modelling a stereotype of a Spaniard in Don Quixote? A man who, on the whole is hard-working and practical, but where romanticism is concerned becomes fanatical on a point of honour? (Maybe, though I think that Spanish man has been changing and the stereotype of the romantic is a little wide of the mark now.)
The life of Miguel de Cervantes can be seen in elements of the novel. Indeed, when the priest and others are consigning Don Quixote's unsavoury books to a bonfire, the name of Cervantes is mentioned as part of a literary progression. Cervantes was born in 1547 to a surgeon/physician. He moved from town to town as a young boy as his father sought work. Later, he studied in Madrid before moving to Italy in 1570 and serving in the household of Cardinal Aquaviva. In 1571, he fought in the sea-battle of Lepanto against the Turkish fleet. he was severely wounded in his left arm with lasting effects. Four years later, whilst returning to Spain via sea, he was captured and remained a prisoner for 5 years until his family finally raised the not inconsiderable ransom, in 1580. As mentioned, two of his works were based on his experiences as a captive (Los Tratos de Argel and Los Baños de Argel). However, his writing did not make him financially comfortable, in fact he faced severe financial difficulties and was jailed three times, including once as a murder suspect. Once he published the first part of Don Quixote in 1606, he settled in Madrid, and though not rich, he was not as desperate as before and it afforded him time to devote to writing. Recent examination of the surviving documentation concerning Cervantes's death has led a physician, Anotnio López Alonso, to determine that death was brought about by cirrhosis of the liver caused by diabetes.
Cervantes's legacy had an impact on literature to follow - the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe, for one - and the English language, with phrases such as 'tilting at windmills' and of course, 'quixotic' (meaning extremely idealistic or impractical) arising from the novel. But just like Shakespeare, whose contribution to the English language is well documented, it wasn't just new words or phrases that encapsulate his contribution to language: he helped to elevate language to a new level. As a result of his work, but particularly Don Quixote, Cervantes is worthy of the acknowledgement when celebrating the literary word. It was just a shame that whilst April 23rd 2016 was awash with Shakespeare events and commemorations in the UK and around the world, very few were held in honour of his fellow writer, Cervantes,
*In fact, Cervantes died some 11 days before. The confusion was caused by mistaking his funeral date with his death date and the use of the Julian calendar in England and the Gregorian calendar in Europe, at that time.
** Full title: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha
ᶧ Cervantes Institute