Don Quixote: Sloppy, Inconsistent, Baffling, Perfect
On the Magical Hyper-realism of a 400-Year-Old Classic
I have honestly lost count of how many times I have read Don Quixote of La Mancha. The first time was in my native Mexico City, in my late teens. I didn’t much like it: it seemed long and uncontained, its language stilted, even arcane. It was about an idealist ready to take on the world and realize his dreams. I was an idealist myself, but I couldn’t sympathize with the travails of the protagonist. I probably didn’t finish it, and if I did, it was after declaring my displeasure at every turn, complaining to those who would listen that it was an outdated classic that contemporary readers wouldn’t really find useful anymore. I even inserted a handful of marginalia about its repetitiveness, its unruliness. I know because I still have that precious debut copy in my library.
Maturity is about coming face-to-face with our own limitations, about becoming patient with ourselves. Sometime in my mid-thirties, after telling a friend I would never go back to Don Quixote, I suddenly realized I was wrong and, as if under a spell, felt the urge to reopen the book. A more assured, less gullible reader, I franticly devoured it in a couple of sleepless sessions. Since then, I have dutifully returned to Cervantes’s novel in periodic cycles, each time sensing anew its sheer magic. Whenever I’m back the book appears to me a different book, with nuances—a hidden adjective, a turn of phrase—I hadn’t noticed before. Its pages are fluid, inexhaustible, growing as I grow. I have lectured on Don Quixote, I have written about it, and I have taught it, which gives me enormous pleasure, for it is I who now puts it on the lap of a young generation, knowing perfectly well that, just like the earlier version of me, the young love to rebel. I must convince my students of the merits of the book, prove to them that because it spoke to my generation and to those before, it is likely to speak to theirs as well.
A classic is a book that waits for us until we are ready, a book that chooses its readers. These volumes don’t want to be read by just anyone but the right reader at the right time. Don Quixote is a prime example. Ask around and you will find out how many people stumbled along the way, like I did when I was young. You will also discover that those who finish it are radically transformed. This is a book for all seasons. It feels to me as if it has always been needed as a way to mend the world, perhaps today more than ever, modernity being both a blessing and a curse, as our sense of self undergoes heavy pressure to conform, to lose its uniqueness.
Now that I am, like the book’s protagonist, Alonso Quijano, in my mid-fifties, the plot seems to me about a bored, pathetic old man who refuses to grow up. And about a diehard reader who endlessly consumes second-rate literature, which, in the late Renaissance, was what chivalry novels were. And about an inveterate dreamer who, in middle age, knows that dreams, if unattended, have the tendency to sour. There is a haunting poem by Langston Hughes, a poem I love called “Harlem,” that strikes me as getting to the very essence of the novel. In it Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up… Or fester like a sore?… Or does it explode?”
Dreams do explode. Don Quixote is proof of it. Quijano, out of restlessness, becomes Don Quixote. He can no longer sit tight, passively reading books. He is ready to go out and conquer the world. That abrupt decision, in my eyes, makes him admirable: finally, he is ready to live up to his full potential, to take command of his actions, no matter how wretched they might be.
What I like most about Don Quixote is its imperfection. I wasn’t wrong in my teens about the sloppiness of the writing; it is just that my attitude was too pedantic. It is, unquestionably, a defective narrative. Cervantes is often criticized as a numb and careless stylist. Aside from the countless typos in the first edition, which subsequent editions mercifully corrected, there are all sorts of errors: for instance, Sancho Panza’s donkey disappearing without a trace at one point, only to reappear later, or the name of Sancho’s wife, Teresa Panza, constantly changing, as if the author forgot what to call her.
Worse perhaps is the feeling one gets—I do, at least—that Cervantes is often falling asleep at the wheel, that he wants to stubbornly fill pages. Although this isn’t a flaw per se, the First Part and the Second Part, published a decade apart (the first in 1605, the second in 1615) at times feel as if they are unrelated siblings, the first maybe written tempestuously, the second more relaxed and philosophical, if not more fatalistic. Furthermore, I love all this clumsiness, I love the way things appear to be clogged up. It reminds me of my own ineptness. The business of classics being perfect books is baloney. They are as defective, as inadequate as everything else in the universe. Careful readers see these flaws as reflections of their own frailty. That, I suspect, is why audiences adore Don Quixote himself: because he is awkward, pitiful, inchoate, seeking excellence but failing in the process. The knight’s charm is to be found in his folly. Imperfection is a feature of our universe, and this classic is distinct because it both deliberately and haphazardly replicates that feature.
The book came out during the late Renaissance, a time of resistance to the Counter-Reformation in Spain. Cervantes was a devotee of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, perceived as dangerous by the Holy Office; its ideas promoted a critical, defiant view of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and were credited for igniting a fever of anti-clericalism. Don Quixote is, at its core, not just an irreligious but also even an anti-religious book because it doesn’t talk about sins or embrace any type of eternal redemption. Still, in my eyes it is book about faith of another sort: it calls readers to sacrifice for a cause—any cause, just as long as one is passionate about it.
This edition celebrates the four-hundredth anniversary of the release of the Second Part of Don Quixote. The endurance of this book is nothing short of astonishing. The shelf life of an average book is relatively short: a month, a year with luck. Four centuries is more than proof of durability. Marketers and publicists can’t even contemplate such longevity. It is impossible to imagine the millions who have converged on its pages—first in Spanish, then in almost all the languages in the world.
The Real Thing
I don’t often think about Cervantes when reading Don Quixote, and when I do it feels like a distraction. Is it really important to know who the author of a work of art is? Doesn’t the work strive to have a life of its own, independent from its creator? Miguel de Unamuno believed Cervantes was unworthy of his book, a second-rate author behind a first-rate work. And Nabokov panned him as an unconvincing realist novelist (in one of his lectures on the book, he talked about how Cervantes had no sense of geography). But I’m talking of something even more extreme. Do we really need him to understand his creation? We do, because no matter how much we wish it, as Parmenides stressed, nihil fit ex nihilo, nothing comes from nothing.
There is only scattered information about Cervantes’s life. Born in Alcalá de Henares in 1547, Cervantes fought as a young man in the Battle of Lepanto, in which the Spanish and a coalition of southern European Catholic maritime states fought the Ottomans. Cervantes lost use of his left arm during the incident, earning himself the nickname “el manco de Lepanto,” the one-armed man of Lepanto. In the novel, there is a chapter in which Don Quixote, offering a speech to Sancho, mulls over whether the pen is mightier than the sword. Although it is undeniably Cervantes’s writing and not his soldiering that cemented his place in history, the knight comes out in favor of the sword, a fact that always seemed anachronistic to me, even when I know well that a military life in Spain then was deemed far more admirable than one devoted to literature. It is anachronistic today as well—or at least I hope so, although, given the state of our world, I acknowledge I am in the minority.
Upon his return home from time spent in Italy, Cervantes and his brother were captured by the Turks and imprisoned in Algiers. In Don Quixote there is a self-sufficient novella, “The Captive’s Tale,” about a man who suffers the same fate. Cervantes held a position as a tax collector, among other jobs. He spent some time in jail. People have the mistaken idea that this was because of his intellectual activities, but in truth he had mishandled funds. He had an out-of-wedlock daughter and married a woman almost his daughter’s age. Although Cervantes was, in addition to being a novelist, a poet and a playwright, he excelled in neither discipline. Among other items, he left behind a pastoral novel and a series of short narratives known as Exemplary Novellas. Had his masterpiece not been written, we would likely consider him a minor figure of El Siglo de Oro, the baroque Golden Age of Spanish literature, or otherwise not remember him at all. Luckily (for him but, mostly, for us), he found success in his old age. The First Part of Don Quixote was published when he was fifty-seven.
Again, none of this might appear crucial to understanding the novel—which, when it came out, was an instant success—yet it is indispensable to appreciating its essence. Maybe Cervantes’s personal failings underscore the enormity and unexpectedness of the book’s durability. Maybe his poverty and desperation to make money help explain why the narrative is so entertaining and seemingly geared toward mass appeal. It took just a few years for about 1,500 copies to sell—a number that may seem meager by contemporary standards but was at that time, with illiteracy rampant, quite significant. There are historical records showing that people constantly talked about Don Quixote and Sancho, and even dressed up like them. Although the Holy Office of the Inquisition forbid novels in the Americas, we know that during the 1630s copies circulated in Mexico and Peru, the two epicenters in Spain’s colonial domain.
Most people in the Spanish-speaking world affectionately refer to Cervantes’s novel as El Quijote. The reasons are manifold: it is the book of books, the center of gravity around which Hispanic civilization rotates. But the appellation also has do to with the fact that, before the Second Part was published, a spurious Second Part appeared in 1614 to meet the demands of readers anxious to put their hands on the next installments. A man writing under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, about whom even less is known than about Cervantes, wrote the ersatz sequel. This version is known as El Falso Quijote, in English The Apocryphal Quixote. In the real Second Part, the characters, not only Don Quixote and Sancho but also several others, often talk about it with disdain, proclaiming themselves “authentic,” unlike Fernández de Avellaneda’s creations. Referring to Cervantes’s novel as El Quijote is thus a way of stating what is rightfully his.
One could argue that, since Cervantes’s death, countless others have laid claim to his book. Think of the infinite echoes of Don Quixote. Shakespeare probably read it, or at least knew about it. (The Bard co-wrote a play with John Fletcher called Cardenio, based on one of the Don Quixote episodes.) Diderot believed it encapsulated all philosophy, from Socrates to the Encyclopaedists. Samuel Taylor Coleridge recommended it without restrain. Flaubert modeled Madame Bovary after it. Dostoyevsky couldn’t stop praising it in his diaries and shaped his novel The Idiot as a tribute. Kafka felt a deep kinship toward it, making Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis verily Quixotic. And Borges repeatedly reimagined its structure and narrative premises. The list of admiring literati goes on: Henry Fielding, Lord Byron, Michel Foucault, Carlos Fuentes, Milan Kundera, and so on. There have been many detractors, too: Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought of it as unending, and Vladimir Nabokov believed it was a cruel book. Outside literature, the fan club is equally substantial: it includes Manuel de Falla, Orson Welles, George Balanchine, Terry Gilliam, Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and Subcomandante Marcos.
While all this points to the universality of the novel, it is intriguing to note that Don Quixote is extraordinary local in its focus. It mainly deals with rural life in central Spain. And while it described, endearingly, the arid landscape of La Mancha, it is also, at least in my eyes, a severe critique of Cervantes’s time. Not a single page goes by without a stern assessment—social, political, religious, and military—of his society. The novel is built on pure satire, meaning that nothing is sacred. The list of targets is endless: one famous chapter criticizes the Holy Office of the Inquisition, another chapter ridicules the government; there are harsh comments about the place of women in Spanish society, Moors, aristocratic arrogance, and so on. Don Quixote and Sancho laugh at everything, including—and especially—themselves. In doing so, they indulge in a long-lasting sport in the Hispanic world: self-deprecation.
The relationship between Spain and Don Quixote is rather complex. In spite of its early success, the country’s intelligentsia scorned it. Lope de Vega, Cervantes’s contemporary and rival as well as the most famous poet and playwright of the period, called it “inferior.” Since then, a national debate has ensured about its qualities and overall value. Among others, figures like Unamuno and José Ortega y Gasset have even attempted to extrapolate from its pages a distinct ideology, called Quijotismo: the capacity, in the face of adversity, to stick to one’s own ideals. For Spain, this ideology has been a double-edged sword: at times it has pushed it into depression, economic and psychological, and on other occasions it has been the inspiration in the finding of new collective goals.
In Latin America, which for centuries functioned as the principal satellite of the Spanish Empire, another ideology has emerged, again linked to Don Quixote: Menardismo. It originates in Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” about a French symbolist poet who at the end of the nineteenth century decides to rewrite—not to copy but to rewrite from scratch—Don Quixote. The story has been read widely as a metaphor for the Latin American approach to art: through a stream of outside influences, it futilely seeks its own distinctiveness. Menardismo, then, finds uniqueness in a copy, declaring it authentic.
From novel to ideology, Don Quixote has become a veritable fountain of linguistic expressions. As in the case of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, lots of Cervantes’s sentences, which he might have harvested from the time he lived in, are now part of popular parlance, such as “El amor es deseo de belleza” (Love seeks beauty), “Dad crédito a las obras y no a las palabras” (Give credit to acts, not to words), “La guerra, así como es madrastra de los cobardes, es la madre de los valientes” (War is mother of the brave and stepmother of cowards), and “Se va a la plaza del nunca por la calle del ya voy” (Promises are thinner than air). Furthermore, the novel’s protagonist has given the world an adjective: quijotesco, Quixotic, which the dictionary tells us means “unrealistic, exceedingly idealistic” but that conveys so much more: impetuous, ambitious, imaginative, capricious, determined, hopeful, optimistic, and even perfectionist.
Chivalry literature was to Cervantes’s time what superhero adventures are to ours. Just as people today dress up like Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and the X-Men, readers then imagined themselves as Amadis de Gaula, Tirant Lo Bancc, and Palmerín of England. These were imaginary characters based on the mythic travails of the Crusaders and other knights. Dressed up in shining armor and riding their loyal horses, in the popular imagination they were ready to conquer heathen lands as a sign of courtly devotion to their fair ladies.
Cervantes parodied these archetypes at a moment when people were eager to go beyond a stilted kind of heroism and he showed them how. Don Quixote is considered the first modern novel in the sense of the bildungsroman. Quijano, the protagonist, starts in one physical and emotional place and ends up in a radically different one. Modernity is about being in a constant state of change. And that state, that condition, generates endless angst.
No matter how one looks at him, Don Quixote is an anxious character. He is always agonizing about his enemies, his capacity to defeat them, and his beloved’s fidelity to him. Early on in the narrative, he is described as a hidalgo, a lowly member of Spain’s seventeenth-century aristocracy. The word hidalgo derives from “hijo de algo,” son of wealth, and it describes an individual who is financially passive, wasting his energy in idle endeavors, unlike the early manifestations of the bourgeoisie, who understood that change came as a result of individual talent and that such talent was a type of capital. Don Quixote’s angst is largely a byproduct of his class, whose standing is permanently untenable.
The character Don Quixote is unprecedented by those in stories that come before because he has an inner life that is as vivid and complex as his outer one. Think of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible, The Arabian Nights and the Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. All of them are populated by characters without any interiority. In Genesis 12, the outset of the Abrahamic story, the Almighty says to him (in the King James Version), “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.” Abraham—then called Abram—reacts mechanically, without much thought. The Bible simply says, “So Abram departed.” I’m even tempted to describe him as an automaton.
In contrast, any exchange between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is a showcase of complex emotions. In the First Part, Chapter VIII, which stands among the most famous in the volume, the knight errant is eager to convince his squire that nearby windmills are actually a group of giants, but his squire isn’t convinced:
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”
“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”
This, unquestionably, is a two-way conversation. It defines the characters in the way dialogue makes any of us “real” people (if we can be said to be real). Not only is Don Quixote always changing, but, as this passage demonstrates, he is also stubborn, which implies he refuses to change. As a character, he disagrees internally. Indeed, in Cervantes’s novel, his characters don’t talk at each other but to one another; moreover, they exist in order to converse… and vice versa.
I once attempted a list of the entire cast of Don Quixote. I stopped counting after I reached two hundred. Aside from the knight, there is his niece and a housekeeper, the town’s priest and barber, innkeepers and other villagers. There is Sancho, of course, who doesn’t show up as the knight’s companion until Chapter VII of the First Part; his family, as well as thieves, puppeteers, a duke and duchess, Moors, prisoners, printmakers, etcetera. And, of course, there is Dulcinea del Toboso, an ethereal presence, a Platonic figure more in Don Quixote’s psyche than in reality. Truly, like Shakespeare’s Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, Don Quixote isn’t in love with Dulcinea as such but, rather, with love itself.
Still, it is the pair of Don Quixote and Sancho, at first master and servant, soon teacher and pupil, then inseparable friends, that justifies the whole ride. Exquisitely drawn, they are a study in contrast: one a nobleman and the other poor, one is thin and tall and the other fat and short, one an idealist and the other a materialist, and one stubborn and impulsive and the other practical and flexible. As they go along their adventures, the two slowly influence one another, bringing about a Quixotization of Sancho Panza and a Sanchification of Don Quixote. The most dramatic point of mutual influence might be, at the book’s very end, Don Quixote recognizing that his idea of being a knight was an illusion and Sancho finally coming to believe in that illusion. Maybe that’s what friendship is about: sharing one’s essence and, as a result, changing it. Not accidentally, that friendship—that eternal couple—has become a staple of our culture. Think of its countless clones: Jacques and his master, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Ernie and Bert, Abbot and Costello, Vladimir and Estragon, and C3PO and R2D2.
Since everything is transient, everything can and should be recorded, if only to fix that moment in time. The key to our identity resides in the language we use to describe a vision of the universe in any given moment. Words, hence, are our brick and mortar. And they surely are for Don Quixote and Sancho: Everything becomes a story. Through storytelling, they navigate epiphanies and misunderstandings. In truth, Don Quixote is just an accumulation of thinly interwoven episodes with this couple at center stage. Despite the novel’s long diversions (there are even autonomous novellas, like “The Ill-Conceived Curiosity” and “The Captive’s Tale,” that take several chapters that, even once we finish them, have no apparent connection to Don Quixote and Sancho), the back-and-forth between the two characters quickly becomes a labyrinth in which multitudes of narratives exist in dizzying competition.
The Master of Artifice
At one point in the Second Part, Don Quixote and Sancho enter a print shop in Barcelona, where they have a conversation about books and then about translations. The knight tells his squire that reading a novel in translation is like looking at a Flemish carpet from the back. Aside from being a superb metaphor, this line is also intimately linked to one of the essential themes of Don Quixote: the role of translation.
From the very first line (“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…”; “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind…”), the narrator comes across as capricious and unreliable. As the plot unfolds, alternate narrators emerge, competing for the reader’s attention. Among them is an Arab historian named Cide Hamete Benengeli, who is said to have written down the adventures of Don Quixote beforehand in his native Arabic, which the novel’s original narrator stumbles across on a table with old books in Toledo. There is “un moro aljamiado,” a young Moor born in Spain, whom the narrator comes across in Toledo and asks to translate into Spanish Benengeli’s original Arabic text. On top of all these narrators is the author himself, either Cervantes or someone assuming his authorial voice, who occasionally reclaims control of the material.
This game of voices makes Don Quixote a quintessential product of the Baroque, a style that stresses ornamentation and self-consciousness. The characters, particularly Don Quixote and Sancho, are relentlessly aware of their appearance—that is, their “literariness.” At one point in the Second Part, for instance, Don Quixote and Sancho encounter a reader of the First Part, who tells them that they aren’t quite as he imagined them. In another instance, two characters come across in Alonso Quijano’s library a copy of La Galatea, a novel by Cervantes. The effect of all such moments is that of a culture in the process of being turned into a caricature or imitation of itself, as in Diego Velázquez’s famous “Las Meninas,” in which the king and the queen, standing next to the would-be position of the painting’s creator and across from that painter’s image within the painting, look at themselves in a mirror, one in which only the observers—ourselves—are able to stand: a reflection of a reflection.
To me, the most decisive of these games is the suggestion by Cervantes that what the reader has in hand is a palimpsest, one that originates in another language, with Cide Hamete Benengeli as its true author. That’s why I feel as if reading the book in Spanish is, in and of itself, an act of translation. Consequently, the fact that the vast majority of readers that have ever come to Don Quixote accessed it in translation is, at least to me, quite fitting. In my personal library, I have a large collection of versions in multiple languages, including, French, Portuguese, German, Korean, Hebrew, and Yiddish. (Plus, I have translated the novel into Spanglish. It begins: “En un placate of La Mancha of which nombre no quiero remembrearme…”) And I have all the translations ever done into English.
There have been no fewer than twenty English translations. To my knowledge, with the exception of the Bible, no other book has been translated as frequently into Shakespeare’s tongue. The majority was produced in England; not until the mid-twentieth century did American translators enter the ring. All but one translation are by men; the exception is by Edith Grossman, who published her popular version in 2003. The first English translator was Thomas Shelton, who is said to have completed the translation of the First Part in approximately thirty days at the request of a close friend who didn’t know Spanish. The British translators include a mailman, a nephew of John Milton, and a diplomat. One of those translators, novelist Tobias Smollett, is said not to have known a word of Spanish.
This edition uses the rendition by John Ormsby (1829–1895), first published in London in 1885. I find his version the most genuine, the closest to the original, and with the most rhythm and sharpness. In a kind of mission statement, he states that “fidelity to the method is as much a part of the translator’s duty as fidelity to the matter.” He adds that the “first duty is to those who look to him for as faithful a representation of his author as it is in his power to give them, faithful to the letter so long as fidelity is practicable, faithful to the spirit so far as he can make it.”
I like this version because it avoids affectation. In Ormsby’s words, “no man abhorred it more” than Cervantes, and the book skewers pretension with its sometimes ridiculous depiction of Don Quixote and the affected chivalry novels the character adores and the author detested. He does a particularly fine job of reflecting this skewering in his translation. Also, Ormsby understood that Spanish underwent less change since the seventeenth century than other European languages did. It is harder today for a native English speaker to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for instance, than it is for a native Spanish speaker to read Cervantes’s novel. Of course, the translation the reader has in hand is 125 years old, so it isn’t contemporary. That is an aspect I frankly adore. After all, experiencing a classic of this caliber is an act of reaching back in time. The language of more recent translations is too fresh for me, too immediate. Unless one was a denizen of Cervantes’s Spain, a filter is needed to convey a degree of historical distance. Ormbsy concludes: “Seeing that the story of Don Quixote and all its characters and incidents have now been for more than two centuries and a half familiar as household words in English mouths, it seems to me that the old familiar names and phrases should not be changed without good reason. Of course a translator who holds that Don Quixote should receive the treatment a great classic deserves, will feel himself bound by the injunction laid upon the Morisco in Chap. IX not to omit or add anything.”[*]
Ormsby’s promise—to be true to the original—is kept fully in this anniversary edition, except for one addition: twenty spectacular new illustrations by the Mexican artist Eko, whose imaginative art is in line with legendary lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. There is a rich tradition of artists whose work engages with Cervantes’s novel: Picasso produced a silhouette of the knight and his squire that is as famous as the characters themselves, in part because Spain has used it—and abused it—for tourism purposes. Salvador Dalí produced an array of images to accompany the book. And then there are the phantasmagorical engravings of Gustave Doré, a French Romantic who in the nineteenth century produced some of the most recognized pictorial depictions. Eko has obviously studied those ancestors closely. His art is both a tribute and a departure. He turns the cast into almost outrageous, larger-than-life eyes, fingers, and hands, which he places on a curtained stage, to emphasize the spectacle of it all.
I beg to differ with the characterization of Don Quixote as unrealistic; to me, Don Quixote is hyper-realistic. He understands quite well the weight of reality, even if he refuses to see it, thus choosing to sidestep it, to improve on it. I find him the most learned of all characters in literature, a wise man, an enlightened soul. His repeated mishaps are conventionally seen as demonstration of the outdatedness of his values. His redemption doesn’t come from standing unintentionally for his dream but, instead, for endorsing it even if it is… well, Quixotic.
Indeed, after countless readings I have come to see Don Quixote not only as a novel but as a manual of life. You’ll find in it anything you need, from lessons on how to speak and eat and love to an exhortation of a disciplined, focused life, an argument against censorship, and a call to make lasting friends, which, as Cervantes puts it, is “what makes bearable our long journey from birth to death.” People have been drawn to the book because it addresses the basic questions: Who am I and what makes me unique? What is truth and how should that truth be shared? Are we all trapped in our own circumstances? And what happens to a dream deferred? Don Quixote sweeps these questions off the table with a simple response: it is our imagination that sets us free. For, as Yeats wrote, “in dreams begins responsibility,” though it certainly doesn’t end there.
[*] The one part of Ormsby’s rendition I dislike is in the First Part, Chapter I, when Alonso Quijano loses his mind. The original reads: “En resolución, él se enfrascó tanto en su letura, que se le pasaban las noches leyendo de claro en claro, y los días de turbio en turbio; y así, del poco dormir y del mucho leer, se le secó el celebro de manera que vino a perder el juicio.” Ormsby abbreviates this section thus: “In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon…” Others, including Thomas Shelton, Cervantes’s first translator into English, do a far better job. Shelton’s version reads: “In resolution, he plunged himself so deeply in his reading of these books, as he spent many times in the lecture of them whole days and nights; and in the end, through his little sleep and much reading, he dried up his brains in such sort as he lost wholly his judgment.”
All illustrations by Eko. Text from the introduction to Don Quixote, published by Restless Books.