Not only one of the (many) unread classics, Don Quixote is a book almost no one seems to have any intention of reading. People don’t feel bad about ignoring it, don’t need to pretend they’ve read it, don’t say they’ve always been meaning to take it to the beach. I hope I’m wrong about the novel’s actual readership, for the sake of several publishers and many readers who would immensely enjoy the book if they got to it, but I don’t think I’m wrong about the way things look.
Fielding and Sterne loved Don Quixote, and so did Flaubert and Dostoevsky. It’s hard to imagine what their work would have been like without this affection in the background. But there don’t seem to be many modern writers who care about the book, or have been marked by it. Thomas Mann wrote a wonderful essay about it, but its moral world seems very far from his own. Faulkner said he used to read Don Quixote once a year, but you wouldn’t guess this from his writing. The influence of Don Quixote on Latin American fiction has been enormous, but more as a cultural legacy, an idea of Cervantes and his work, than as any great devotion to the novel itself.
I think part of what’s happened is that we imagine we know Don Quixote, and don’t need to know it better. We recall the famous images of Doré and Picasso and Dalí. We hum the tunes from The Man of La Mancha, even if we didn’t see the musical. We remember Kosintsev’s movie, and Welles’s movie fragments. Above all, perhaps, we think of our kitschy souvenirs from Spain, those proliferating tea-towels, plates, jugs, statues, prints, and other Quixo-Sanchic junk that we brought back from Malaga, along with the bullfight mementos and the castanets. Why would we need to read the book? It’s about a tall thin sad fellow, and a short round sensible one. About ideals and their fate in the humdrum world; on my right illusion, on my left reality. In the older Spanish and most English readings, reality wins, although illusion has some nice moves. In the reading of the German Romantics, of most Spaniards since the early 19th century, and of almost everyone in the 20th century except the English, illusion takes the high ground, wins the long war of dreams, even as it loses the shorter battle of the everyday world.
It’s reasonable to think that a new translation might help us out here, that the stuffiness of the old translations is the problem. Burton Raffel says he took on the task because he ‘did not feel comfortable recommending any of the existing translations of Don Quixote’. I wish he’d said what made him uncomfortable, particularly with Putnam’s 1949 version for Viking, which has always seemed to me admirable, although I suppose Raffel must think of his work itself as an implicit judgment on the competition. There is plenty of that, since almost every well-known English version of Don Quixote has been reprinted in recent years. In order of original publication, there are: Motteux 1700-1712 (Everyman, 1991), Jarvis 1742 (Oxford, 1992), Smollett 1755 (Farrar, Straus, 1986), Ormsby 1885 (Norton, 1981). There is also J.M. Cohen’s 1950 Penguin translation, and Walter Starkie’s 1964 version for Signet. The only thing lacking is a good modern edition of Shelton’s wonderful Jacobean translation: the first part appeared in 1612, before the second part of the Spanish Quixote was published; the second in 1620.
This is not the place (and I’m not the person) to offer a comparative judgment on these labours; but I have looked at all of these versions, and I have to confess I don’t actually feel uncomfortable with any of them. The Motteux text is by far the best-known and most widely circulated, although scholars are full of scorn for it because of its cavalier approach to the original, and its habit of sticking in new sentences when it feels like it. But it still reads remarkably well, it doesn’t feel as if it’s nearly three hundred years old, and if you don’t want to fork out for the Everyman, you’ll find that Motteux’s version appeared, without any indication of who the translator is, as a Wordsworth Classic in 1993. This is in its way appropriate, since this translation was first offered to the world as the work of ‘several hands and published by Peter Motteux’, and it’s J. Ozell’s revision of this work that does the rounds under the name of Motteux. Smollett stays very close to Motteux. Jarvis and Ormsby are sounder by all accounts, but also more plodding, as is Cohen. Putnam is both accurate and elegant, although it’s possible that the English of 1949 now seems as far away as the English of 1700. Raffel’s version has plenty of pace, is genuinely funny, if a little rough around the edges, and not much interested in nuance – in the difference, for example, between ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ and ‘How could I not?’, or between a squire and a commoner, or between ‘I follow that’ and ‘That’s what I’m getting at.’ It’s odd that Raffel should say, in his brief note, that he has tried to respect Cervantes’s ‘syntactical organisation’, since it’s his inventive recasting of the rhythms of Cervantes’s syntax into a contemporary American idiom that makes his work so interesting. We have only to look at the Prologue, where Cervantes tells the reader that of course he longed for his book to be the most beautiful, most lively and most distinguished that could be imagined, but (I translate as literally as possible) ‘I have not been able to go against the order of nature; by which each thing engenders its like.’ Putnam has: ‘but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like.’ Raffel has: ‘But could I contradict the natural order of things? Like creates like.’ I think this is good, but the syntax is all Raffel’s.
The great challenge in translating Cervantes is his stealth, and all the translators hit and miss this all the time. The famous opening of the first chapter is a splendid instance. ‘En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme.’ Literally: ‘In a place in Mancha whose name I do not want to recall.’ Does ‘I do not want’ mean ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘I can’t bear the thought of it’? Or just ‘I’d rather not’? Cervantes is certainly hinting at some sort of story here, something just offstage, but once you get the hang of reading him, you realise he may be bluffing, and that you have no way of telling. There may be a secret here, and it may matter. There may be a secret, but one of no importance. Or there is no secret at all, just the hint of a secret, the voice of the writer teasing us, playing to our suspicions. Motteux catches this best, I think: ‘At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name.’ Other translators make too much fuss, and simply prefer one of the possible meanings to the others. Their differences are instructive. Shelton: ‘In a certaine village of the Mancha, the name whereof I purposely omit’; Ormsby: ‘In a village of La Mancha, which I prefer to leave un-named’; Putnam: ‘In a village of La Mancha the name of which I have no desire to recall’; Raffel: ‘In a village of La Mancha (I don’t want to bother you with its name).’
The question of translation, in relation to Don Quixote, is fascinating, but it’s not our problem. Well, it might be a sort of parody of our problem, but then all translations would be caught up in it. What’s boring about Don Quixote is not the book but our idea of it, our addiction to the notions of illusion and reality, or our aversion to all talk of them. Of course illusion and reality do have their spats, and the spats are important. But the opposing figments are not fixed entities. They are more like the names of shifting pieces in a game, and they are more often accomplices than enemies. They need each other; there is no war for either of them to win. For every simple encounter between illusion and reality in Don Quixote – say, a man rushing into windmills which he believes are giants – there eight or nine elaborate negotiations between the extravagant self and the only slightly less extravagant world. Is this inn a castle? No, but everyone, and not just Don Quixote, is prepared to talk as if it is. Is this shining object a barber’s basin or Mambrino’s helmet? It’s a barber’s basin, but the barber is wearing it on his head, and a whole innful of people later conspire, as a joke, to certify that it’s a helmet. It is strange, isn’t it, to see a funeral cortège on the road in the middle of the night, ‘an adventure’, as Cervantes puts it, ‘that really, without artifice of any kind, did seem to be one’. When Dulcinea is enchanted before Quixote’s very eyes, it is because Sancho needs to get himself out of trouble – he has pretended to deliver a message to Dulcinea, whom he has never seen in his life – and Quixote sees and smells just what is in front of him: three peasant-girls on three donkeys, and a strong whiff of garlic. Sancho claims to see three ladies on three tine horses, the ladies covered in jewels and shining like the sun at noon. If Quixote can’t see this, it’s because an evil enchanter has converted – let’s see if I can get this right – the real beauty of the imaginary Dulcinea into the real ugliness of the girl who’s not Dulcinea at all. Cervantes, with Sancho’s help, is turning the screw here, since previous mentions of Dulcinea, aka Aldonza Lorenzo, have said that she was good-looking, ‘de muy buen parecer’, just not the grand lady of Quixote’s fantasies. The false Dulcinea not only brings the knight back to earth, she rubs his nose in it – or rather her nose, since she is said to be snub-nosed and round-faced, and not at all fair of feature, ‘no de muy buen rostro’.
Games with truth (and translation) run throughout the book. After eight chapters, in the middle of a violent fight Quixote is having with the escort of a Basque lady on her way to Seville, Cervantes says his (fictitious) historical sources don’t tell us any more. Fortunately he finds some further manuscripts in Toledo, which pick up the story exactly where it was interrupted, swords raised in the middle of the fight. This is an Arabic text, though, by one ‘Cide Hamete Benengeli, Arab historian’, and Cervantes, who calls himself the ‘second author’, says he doesn’t know any Arabic. He finds a translator, who promises to do the job ‘well and faithfully and very quickly’ (Raffel takes the last phrase, ‘con mucha brevedad’, to mean ‘using no more words than absolutely necessary’). It sounds as if there might be a snag here, but Cervantes tells us blandly, as if the truth were never a matter of dispute or deception, that ‘no story is bad as long as it’s true.’
Well, there might be a difficulty with the truth of this particular story, because the author is an Arab, and it is ‘characteristic of those of that nation to be liars’; although – the fall of Granada in 1492 hovers here – since the Arabs are such enemies of the Spanish, Cervantes thinks the historian is more likely ‘to have fallen short than to have gone too far’. The implication, which disappears almost as soon as it arises, is that Cide Hamete, who might treacherously have underplayed the noble deeds of a true Spanish knight, will probably have done Don Quixote a favour by keeping quiet about some of his disasters. Cervantes promptly buries this subversive thought in a spoof praise of historical veracity, which is one of the passages of the Quixote that Borges’s Pierre Menard is known to have attempted with some success. Menard’s version, you will remember, is verbally identical to Cervantes’s; it’s just that the meanings are all different. ‘Historians are to be and must be accurate, truthful and not passionate, and neither interest nor fear, neither rancour nor affection should turn them from the path of truth, whose mother is history.’ There is in any case no reason whatsoever for us to suspect Cide Hamete’s veracity, quite apart from the fact that he is Cervantes’s invention anyway. Cervantes has made him an Arab solely to raise the question of truth, with the same sort of effect as the avoidance of the place name in La Mancha. Truth is not a problem here, as it happens; but that’s strange, because it’s a problem everywhere else.
Cervantes returns to this deck of questions in the second volume of his novel, where Quixote learns that a book (the first volume) has been written about him by an Arab historian. It’s enormously popular, although some readers apparently feel that some of the innumerable beatings Quixote receives could have been left out. Sancho says, ‘That’s where the truth of the story comes in,’ but Quixote explains that good writers (like lying Arabs) know how to be economical with the truth. The beatings could have been omitted, Quixote says, ‘because one doesn’t have to write the actions which do not change or dilute the truth of the story.’ But then who’s to be the judge of that?
You can’t really summarise this head-spinning stuff, and we must be meant to experience the vertigo rather than to worry about the epistemology. But it’s clear that Cervantes is interested, however light and fast-changing his methods are, in something like a continuous working metaphor for indirection, for the unavailability of the unadorned truth. It’s not that such truth doesn’t exist – Cervantes is emphatic that it does – it’s that the roads to it are full of politics and prejudice and mischief, and these uncertain roads are the world of the novel. History, Cervantes implies, is what there is, the truth of this world; and it is also a dangerous selection, at best a loaded part of a longer story. Fiction as he practises it is a miming of this double situation, not the ideal moral construction proposed by Renaissance literary theory, but a portrait of the worldly entanglement of truth and lies: no truth that can’t be lied about; no lie that can’t look like, and even be, a truth.
Cervantes loves to unsettle meaning, even his own meaning, out of what I take to be a loyalty to the very possibility of opposition or difference. He does this casually, even recklessly, sometimes seemingly without any point. But he does it all the time, and it provides all the book’s most brilliant jokes. Here is Don Quixote, making a devastating case against himself, simply through the use of the word ‘homicides’, a sort of Freudian slip: ‘And where have you ever seen or read that a knight errant has been brought to justice, however many homicides he committed?’ Here is Don Quixote again, offering an impeccable argument which destroys from within any sense the argument itself might have had. He is planning to go mad in imitation of various lovelorn knights he’s read about, notably Ariosto’s Orlando. Sancho wonders whether there isn’t a crucial difference between them and Quixote, since they had a reason for going mad (again I translate as literally as I can).
‘What lady has disdained you, or what signs have you found that would give you to understand that the lady Dulcinea del Toboso has performed any childishness with Moor or Christian?’
‘That is the point,’ replied Don Quixote, ‘and that is the subtlety of my affair [‘la fineza de minegocio’]; that a knight errant should go mad for a reason has no special merit [‘ni grado ni gracias’]: the thing is to rave without any occasion for it, and to suggest to my lady that if the dry run is like this, what would the real thing be like?’
Or we can watch the swerves in this sentence, where an apparently obvious drift is diverted twice. Only Fielding and Thackeray, in English, have managed to do anything like this. The argument begins by associating the life of Quixote with the life of a saint (‘vida y milagros’), moves to a traditional list of knightly activities, pretends to get distracted by the number of damsels there are around, and how their virtue manages to survive in such rough conditions, and finally, in a dizzying last twist, suggests their virtue doesn’t survive anyway.
This thought [that the story of Don Quixote, recently interrupted, is not continued anywhere in writing] troubled me, and made me desirous of knowing really and truly the whole life and miracles of our famous Spanish Don Quixote de la Mancha, light and mirror of Manchegan chivalry, and the first who in our age and in these calamitous times dedicated himself to the task and exercise of arms errant, and to that of undoing ills, succouring widows, helping damsels, of the kind who travelled with their whips and palfreys, and with their complete virginity aboard, from hill to hill and from valley to valley; so that if they were not raped by some scoundrel, or some villain with cloak and axe, or some fantastic giant, there were damsels in past times who, at the end of eighty years of not once sleeping under a roof, went to the grave as intact as the mothers that bore them.
You can’t really go back or rebuild the sentence when you’ve finished it, it’s a self-consuming artefact, or more precisely, a self-criticising meaning machine. What it shows is that meaning is always precarious, and could come unstuck at any time. And showing this, I am suggesting, was more important for Cervantes than any meaning he might be attached to; and I wonder if most comic authors don’t subscribe, intentionally or not, to the same deconstructive creed.
Illusion and reality don’t just face off in Cervantes; they feed on each other. An illusion which seeks to become a practice alters the practices of the world, and the sensible story of the world’s resistance to fantasy becomes the melancholy if still very funny story of the world’s weary inability to do justice to fantasy’s invitations. The finest, most hauntingly sketched moment in Don Quixote concerns the knight’s encounter with a pair of lions. They are large and fierce and hungry, and they are on their way from Oran as a present to the King of Spain. It’s true that they are not really an adventure in Quixote’s sense, and that he has no business having them released so that he can fight them. But equally there can be no doubt of his extraordinary courage in facing them and it’s hard, as this set-up unfolds, to imagine how Cervantes is going to get himself and his hero out of this. Cervantes loves this kind of situation and always delays his solution, so that the suspense is in the intricate transaction between the person’s bid and the world’s response. It’s a form of gambling. This is not Quixotic illusion against worldly reality but the craziness and violence of Quixotic romance against the courtesy and good sense of the animal kingdom. The cage is opened, the huge male lion spreads his claws, yawns, washes his face and looks around with eyes burnting like coals (‘hechos brasas’). At this stage Cervantes disappoints Quixote even more completely than we imagined he could, and brilliantly anthropomorphises the lion as he does it. It’s the lion who looks like the gentleman here; the gentleman just wants a fight.‘But the generous lion, more obliging than arrogant, paying no attention to childishness’ – niñeria, one of Cervantes’s favourite words, the one he also uses for what Dulcinea hasn’t done with Moor or Christian – ‘or bravado, after looking all around him, turned his back and showed his hind parts to Don Quixote, and with great poise and calm, returned to lie down in the cage.’
A critique of the books of chivalry is still going on here, but we are also looking at something like the birth of modern disenchantment. The time is 1615, and what European hero, from now on, will ever find an adventure worthy of his ambition and his valiant heart? ‘A nous deux maintenant’, Rastignac says from the top of Père Lachaise cemetery, but only the squalid diffusion of the world awaits him, and Paris is about as sleepy as Cervantes’s lion. Its resistance to the individual will lies in its very indifference. The lion’s behaviour suggests not only that hungry beasts can be more polite than moderately well-fed humans, but that even real adventures, especially real adventures, are about to become exercises in disappointment.