Friday, October 26, 2012

Door Stop: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

I have finally come back around to doing a door stop, and just like the others, that label fits this week's novel so well due to the book's actual physical size, as well as the density of the content. Don Quixote is David Copperfield long. In fact, it is so long that some of the characters Don Quixote meets in the second part have already read the first part and are well aware of his previous adventures. Yeah...wrap your head around that one for a minute.

The Situation: Alonso Quijano is a retired country gentleman who has spent mass amounts of time reading books about chivalry and knights and adventures and fair maidens needing to be rescued, etc. In fact, he has read so many of these adventures and has amassed such a huge collection that he decides, in his old age, to go out as a knight and find some adventures of his own. He takes to calling himself Don Quixote, renames his lean but loyal horse "Rocinante," puts on some old armor, and takes off to right injustices and help the downtrodden. Eventually he recruits the help of his neighbor and local farmer, Sancho Panza, who serves Don Quixote as his squire for the remander of his adventures. Together they encounter a ridiculous amount of colorful characters and become involved in more than their fair share of adventures.

The Problem: To put it simply, dude is crazy. Really no other explanation for it. Everyone knows it, Don Quixote's family knows, everyone he encounters knows it, even Sancho is aware that not everything his master sees and does and says comes from a sound mind. And while Don Quixote's loose grip on reality (which is only loose when it comes to the subject of chivalry and seeking adventures as a knight) makes for great entertainment for those of us reading from the safety of a 21st century coffee shop, it causes massive problems for those around him. He is out there ruining people's windmills, hurting their flocks, destroying property, and more often than not, getting himself badly hurt in the process. Eventually, Don Quixote's reputation starts to precede him, and some decide to use his lack of sense, and Sancho's lack of head knowledge, against the both of them and play tricks on them for sport. This then begs the question, at what point has this all stopped being funny? At what point does it all become quite serious? And who in this situation, is really the crazy one?

Genre, Themes, History: This door stop is a parody or spoof of the chivalric romances that were popular around Cervantes' time. They are the very same chivalric romances that Don Quixote the character has become obsessed with to the point of lunacy. By having Don Quixote decide to actually act out what he has read in these books, Cervantes is showing how absurd the content found inside these books really is. Metafiction is a major theme as other works are talked about throughout the novel, and later, a published account of the events at the beginning of the book are talked about by various characters, including the dillusional hero. Written in episodic form, while the book is often funny, there are many points in which the tone is quite serious and philosophical. Eventually, closer to the end, it becomes clear that Don Quixote may not be the only unbalanced person in the book.

My Verdict: Like a lot of other door stops, Don Quixote is a slow build, but one with a very high pay off. At first, it is all about the foolish knight and his misguided idea, which actually has the potential to become very boring very quickly (and it does), but then the knight is joined by Sancho, and they then continue to meet various characters with various histories and stories of heartbreak and injustice. While Don Quixote remains the primary focus, it isn't necessarily all about him. In this way, the episodic format works well, and the diversions are welcome as opposed to annoying. And the book gradually brings itself together the closer it gets to the end of the story.

Favorite Moment: When Sancho is made a pretend governor (although he believes it is real) over a pretend island, he proves to actually be an incredibly competent and wise leader, despite the fact that it is all a massive joke to prove just how inept he is.

Favorite Character: I would have to go with Sancho, the squire. He is full of so many proverbs and wise sayings that they spill out of his mouth pretty much any time he speaks, much to the annoyance of his master, Don Quixote. But every once in awhile he hits upon one that is extremely profound and proves he is to possibly be the wisest person in the room.

Recommended Reading: I expect very few people to take this advice to heart, but given the format of Don Quixote and its stories of chivalry, I will recommend Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales are indeed extremely cumbersome and boring, but others are actually pretty entertaining. Naturally, I recommend only a Modern English translation...don't try to be a hero with the Middle English stuff... 

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