Not only does Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (1605-’15) tower over Spanish literature like a giant windmill, it also can be seen as a turbine that powers Spanish culture.
But the novel’s kinetic energy doesn’t stop at the Iberian peninsula. As scholar Ilan Stavans catalogs in his engaging cultural history, Quixote: The Novel and the World, Don Q and Sancho Panza have a powerful, ongoing influence on Latin American and U.S. literature and culture as well. Except for the Bible, no book has been translated into English more often, Stavans declares, listing 20 different English translations between 1612 and 2009.
Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, walks around the novel as if it were one of the famed sculptures of Don Q in a Spanish plaza, finding something notable or surprising to discuss from every angle. With its digressions and interpolated tales, Don Quixote is far from an example of Flaubertian le mot juste — though, Stavans points out, the author of Madame Bovary adored El Quijote (the Spanish honorific that pays homage to the novel’s primacy).
Its stature as the first modern novel comes from its consuming interest in fantasy (or idealism, or madness) vs. reality, its bookishness (too much reading, after all, launched the knight-errant on his career), and its playful self-referentiality (such as the scene in which the barber and the priest, deciding which books from Alonso Quijano’s library to burn, consider the merits of an author named Cervantes).
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Of course, the knight and his squire have influenced or inspired countless odd-couple and mismatched-buddy stories. “No same-sex literary pair has ever been as famous, as emulated, or as quoted as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” Stavans declares. His list of descendant couples includes Watson and Holmes, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Frodo and Sam Gamgee, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Didi and Gogo (of Waiting for Godot), even Batman and Robin. You may not see eye to eye with Stavans on some of these, but there’s no arguing with the notion that Cervantes laid down a template that still yields fruitful variations today. (If Professor Stavans were an alt-rock guy, he might also have mentioned another dynamic duo — the band They Might Be Giants, which draws its name from the novel.)
“Cervantes’ most lasting contribution is the depth and complexity of his language,” Stavans writes. While he doesn’t credit Cervantes with the volume of coinages attributed to his English contemporary, Shakespeare, Stavans notes that “Cervantes’ syntax has become the default standard style in Spanish.”
In the second half of his book, Stavans explores the concept of Quijotismo, which he describes as the Spanish and Latin American counterpart to United States’ exceptionalism and the American Dream. To explain it, he paraphrases Montaigne: To sacrifice one’s life for a dream is to know its true worth. He sees Quijotismo in Unamuno’s essays, Goya’s paintings, even Subcomandante Marcos’ rebel movement.
Stavans explores movie (including Orson Welles’ abortive attempt), ballet and stage adaptations of Don Quixote, finding most of them wanting, if not outright disasters. As for The Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha, Stavans declares that it “sticks like chewing gum. There is something innately American in this mantra: The self is at the core of all adventures, and each of us needs to protect our own self, make it flourish.”
Jim Higgins reviewed this book for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Meet the author
Who: Ilan Stavans with Paquito D’Rivera
When: 4 p.m. Nov. 15
Where: Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus Auditorium, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami