The question of the desert island: “If only one book, which one?” does not have a universal answer. An informed reader will probably choose Don Quixote (DQ) by Miguel de Cervantes. When Cervantes wrote DQ, he could not have known that he was the originator of the most important literary genre of modern times: the modern novel. Before DQ, there were several genres of fiction, but of relatively minor importance, and no matter which way one turns the table, DQ remains a turning point in the history of literature. Cervantes is to Spanish what Shakespeare is to English, Dante to Italian, Goethe to German and Tolstoy to Russian.
In the prologue to the Exemplary Romans, Cervantes paints a pen portrait of himself. This piece of ecphrasis is as sharp as the portrait is convincingly punchy. The result is inimitably Cervantine: “The one you see here with an aquiline face, an unflappable forehead, sparkling eyes and an arched nose…a silver beard, though not twenty years ago it was golden … fair complexion, rather white than brown, somewhat heavy-shouldered and not very agile on his feet; this, I say, is the portrait of the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha… He is commonly called Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra The image depicted in this 1613 text is that of a proud old man, for whom recognition came late in life.
Cervantes was born in a small town outside Madrid in 1547. Little is known of his early years, but what we do know is that at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571 he was wounded and thus, at the age of 24, he permanently lost the use of his left hand. In 1575, he was captured by Barbary pirates and spent five years as a slave in Algiers. Redeemed in 1580, he served Spain as a spy in Portugal and Oran, then returned to Madrid. The True Adventures of Cervantes lends authenticity to DQ published in 1605, followed by DQ Part II in 1615. DQ established a foundational presence for Cervantes in literature across languages, making it the greatest modern novel ever writing.
The famous opening lines are exemplary in literary parlance along the lines of ordinary speech: “In the town of La Mancha, whose name I care not to recall…” But in DQ even plain speech resonates with associations literary; notably the theatrical farce of the time, centered on the misadventures of a character, which may have served as inspiration for Cervantes. DQ is the story of Alonso Quijano, a 16th century Spanish Hidalgo, a nobleman, who is so passionate about reading that he leaves home in search of his own knightly adventures. He himself becomes a knight-errant: Don Quixote de La Mancha. It brings together other essential accessories for any wandering knight: his armor; a horse, Rocinante; and a lady, an involuntary peasant girl whom he calls Dulcinea of Toboso, in whose name he will perform great acts of chivalry. By emulating his admired literary heroes, he finds new meaning in life: rescuing damsels in distress, battling giants, and righting wrongs mostly in his own head. Through the quixotic adventures, Cervantes brilliantly mixes literary criticism and parody of the Inquisition and its practices of burning texts supposedly associated with the devil.
In perhaps the most quoted scene in the novel, Don Quixote sees three windmills as fearsome giants he must fight, hence the phrase “leaning over the windmills”. But DQ is much more than a delightful series of adventures; it is profoundly philosophical. It’s a book about books, about reading, writing, idealism, and about life and death. DQ does not separate fiction from fact and fact from fiction, and Cervantes deploys this literary technique masterfully, exploring the debate between free will and fate. The lost hero is actually a man struggling to overcome his own limitations to become who he dreams of being.
The eponymous Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are among the greatest literary characters created, and the adventures of a noble-turned-knight-errant and his squire are not only tragicomic, but profound; leaving it to the reader to decide what is real and what is not.
The originality of Don Quixote is not only his inventiveness but his inimitability, and this only emerges in the test of history. Written over 400 years ago, when social status, ethnicity and religion were considered to determine a person’s future; in our time, full of similar windmills, the lesson of DQ is simple. The more we search for our authentic self, the more it tends to recede. The knight and Sancho, at the end of the great work, know exactly who they are, less by their adventures than by their wonderful conversations, whether they are quarrels or agreements. What we need most today is brotherhood: listening, conversing and learning to understand each other.
(The writer is a former civil servant who enjoys browsing the myriad spaces of ideas, thinkers, and books)