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The Great Book Adventure: Don Quixote – Part Three

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Perhaps it's the looming prospect of a week at the beach. Perhaps it's the cumulative effect of seven months spent reading serious literature. Perhaps it is real and true frustration. Whatever the case might be, I think I have about had it with Don Quixote. I've had it with the foolish knight, Sancho Panza, and all the other daft characters Miguel de Cervantes has tossed into this long-winded pot.

To be fair, there is a good bit about the first volume of this magnum opus that I liked and found interesting. It was just the way in which it was delivered that grated on my nerves, especially in the latter half. Most of the key events and conversations just take too long to be said. There were too many words used and I was constantly replaying that clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where all the soldiers shout "get on with it!" The last third of the book felt especially slow, as Cervantes deviates from his main story for a good while.

Don Quixote, for seemingly no other reason than the fact that he hasn't been really crazy in a few chapters, decides to "run mad" for a while in the mountains, while he sends Sancho off to his mistress to let her know what he's been up to. (Quixote's mistress, incidentally, doesn't know she's supposed to be in love with him. Indeed, she never even appears in book one.) After a pleasant scene where the old knight does some pants-less cartwheels, the plot moves forward at a nice pace. Sancho enlists the help of some fellow townsmen to get Don Quixote out of the mountains and back home. After some good diversions, the group ends up at an inn, where things start to drag.

Whereas I had originally been interested in the fact that the book was primarily focused on a dominant character with orbiting seconds, at the inn Don Quixote vanishes for long stretches of text. Instead, what the reader gets is a series of stories told by other characters which have been recently introduced. There were a couple instances of this earlier in the book, most notably Cardenio, on whom Shakespeare's alleged lost play centers. Each of these side stories are interesting in and of their own right, but I think they would have been better served independent of the plot of Don Quixote. They do little to move the knight-errant forward, since, as they exist within the frame of the book, all that is actually happening is that one character is talking to the rest. Perhaps I'm being hyper critical in this context, but I couldn't shake my annoyance that Quixote, Sancho and myself were once again stymied by another randomly introduced windbag. Cervantes has material enough in these stories for a half dozen other books, and I wish he would have treated them as such. Incidentally, whether or not Shakespeare was working on a play called Cardenio, I can easily see his attraction to Don Quixote as a piece of source material. More often than not, I found the characters in these digressions more interesting than the lead players.

What struck me as most impressive about the book had nothing to do with Don Quixote, his madness or the philosophy behind it all. No, what got me were the women. When considering strong literary women, I don't go much further back than Jane Austin. Before that, who do you really have aside from Chaucer's Wife of Bath? Turns out, the ladies of Don Quixote. All of the women I encountered in reading this book have defied my expectations of pre-modern women in literature. I'd grown used to them being weak and/or voiceless characters, or ones who get their just desserts when they try to act too much like men (i.e. Lady MacBeth). That is a long way from the situation here.

Take, for example, Marcella the shepherdess. Her entrance and exit in the story comes fairly early on, but she typifies a Cervantes woman. She is extraordinarily beautiful and so, of course, she gets chased around endlessly by suitors. She wants nothing to do with any of them, and heads out to the fields to tend sheep. Well, she must have been quite a looker, because a whole host of young men go rural and split their time between chasing her and chasing sheep. Still not interested, she defies her harshest critics, saying, among other things, "I was born free, and to enjoy that freedom, have I chosen the solitude of these fields. The trees on these mountains are my companions …. my purpose was to live in perpetual solitude…." Aside from sounding ever so faintly like a Spanish hippie, she is very forceful. She knows exactly what she wants and is not willing to compromise herself or her values for anybody. That sort of conviction makes her jump off the page and throws her in sharp contrast against the wishy-washy madness of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. It's pretty clear that Cervantes knew how to write strong characters, but that, perhaps, his devotion to the idea of anti-chivalry forced him to undercut the integrity of the book as a whole.

So, having finished the first volume of Don Quixote, I am left with a rather large question: Can a book be considered great if it bores the reader? There is certainly a lot to recommend Don Quixote. There are strong characters and moments, as I discussed last time, of universal truth. I can also understand how it played an important role in the development of modern ideas of story-telling.

In the end, however, I can say nothing but that I was bored most of the time. There were whole sections of text that I either skimmed or skipped because I just couldn't take it anymore. Reading one of Don Quixote's speeches about books of chivalry was like watching a senator talk about campaign finance reform on C-Span. And like the reform discussion, it may be important, but if I'm going cross-eyed trying to get through it, it won't be long before I turn on Comedy Central. Shouldn't a book's first purpose, no matter what age it was written in, be to tell a good story? I have read plenty of old stories which were far more entertaining and, as a result, mean much more to me than Don Quixote ever will. It is with this in mind, that I am firmly ejecting the second volume of the book from The Great Book Adventure. I had intended to finish this tome in August, but simply can't bring myself to spend any more time with Senior Cervantes. After all, it took Miguel ten years to write the second volume. Maybe I should wait that long to read it, maybe longer.

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About Chris Bancells

  • Aaron abraham

    Thank God! I thought I was alone in not enjoying this book!

    At the end of the day about 80% of Don Quixote is mind numbingly repetetve, trivial, and slight. The sad thing is that the central conception is really powerful – a sublimely mad old man steeped in melancholy goes wandering about in search of adventures.

    But the book, is, despite the tragic and dramatic dimension of its central idea, dramatically negligible. It lacks intensity, it lacks mystery, it lacks wonder, and it lacks drama, aside form a few episodes.

    And by the way, I loved the bit about Marcella too! What a wonderful portrait of free spirited nobility – if the book was more like that episode, it would deserve it’s status indeed!