04 April 2008

Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Chunkster Challenge #2

Don Quixote After reading innumerable romances of knights and chivalry have turned his brain, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha sets out to take his place among the great heroes of legend. His friends and family are horrified, and relieved when he soon returns home; but the relief is short-lived, for he hires his neighbour Sancho Panza as squire and sallies forth again. Technically sane, Sancho nevertheless has a remarkable ability to believe anything, if he only puts his mind to it - though he doesn’t, like his master, see everything that crosses his path as the manifestation of some noble adventure. Don Quixote sees armies in flocks of sheep, castles in inns, and of course giants in windmills. The pair travels around Spain, righting wrongs - or trying to - Sancho dreaming of the government of an island his master has promised him, Don Quixote hoping to win the newly-disenchanted Dulcinea. Along their journey they meet a variety of people - some they help, some they are hindered by, and some who just want to have a good laugh at their expense.

The second-biggest of my Chunkster Challenge reads, this was a mammoth undertaking: nine-hundred-plus pages that turned slowly thanks to seventeenth-century prolixity. But while it could be tedious at times, it could also be a lot of fun. Clownish Sancho and the delusional Don are unlikely people to go about rescuing the world’s unfortunates, and they fail at least as often as they succeed. It’s intended as a satire upon the chivalric romances of previous centuries, but you don’t need to be acquainted with them to appreciate the parody. The closest I’ve come to Don Quixote’s preferred literary fare is looking at a massive library copy of one volume of Orlando Furioso and noting with amusement that it still hadn’t been checked out. After reading Don Quixote, I have a pretty good idea of the kinds of magical intervention and improbable feats they contained. I do wonder, though; did the old tales feature romantic troubles miraculously resolved, with rakish nobles suddenly reforming and vowing to be good husbands? Or was that not part of the satire but an eye-roll-inducing flaw?

The high point came early, when the shepherdess Marcella - decried as cruel for remaining unmoved by the pleas of her many suitors - delivers them all a fabulous set-down, proclaiming that she is her own person, and no amount of devotion should oblige a woman to feel anything in return. Unfortunately the book was marred by some very lowbrow stabs at humour and sheer long-windedness. Some days it took force of will to get through more than twenty pages, particularly toward the end, when the Don and Sancho were enjoying the dubious hospitality of the Duke and Duchess (i.e. being made the butts of numerous and elaborate jokes). I felt the entire episode dragged on far too long, and that the lengths they went to for ‘fun’ verging on cruel. Yet I’m glad that I have now read the novel that gave the English language such things as quixotic, Lothario, and tilting at windmills.

Rating: B-

6 comments:

  1. Congratulations on finishing this one!

    Have a great weekend!
    Lezlie

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  2. I followed you from Semicolon. Congratulations! Don Q is a big achievement. I did it in the past couple years with the new translation, and enjoyed it. Hard, and often slow, but so full of cultural and literary originals that have been referenced that it was like a class in itself.

    But since you've read, I'll tell a Don Q joke that no one else gets because they haven't read it--my elder son took the sitz basin I used after having my second son (clean, I promise) and put it on his head and proudly announced, "HAT!" much as Don Q did with the barber's basin.

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  3. I did enjoy this last year, but it was a hard long slog at times. I read part one and had a break before going back to read part two. I am glad I read it though and am trying to get my husband to give it a go.

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  4. inktree2:34 PM

    I haven't read this yet, but "quixotic" is one of my favorite words. Actually, I think the farthest I got last time was to the middle of an introduction, when Cervantes said something to the effect of "now, I won't go rambling on in Latin like this:" and then went rambling on in Latin for a few pages. I'll try again soon, though, because I so like the story. Thank you for the great review!

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  5. I see you're reading The Shadow of the Wind; I've read it a couple of months ago, can't wait to read your review!

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  6. I have Don Q on my TBR-pile and I am looking forward to reading it. I am somehow still waiting for the 'right moment', maybe I'll make it a summer project.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776