Don Quixote At 400: Why The Spanish Loon Flies Higher Than Ever

Apr 29, 2015

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Credit Gustave Dore / Wikimedia Commons

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme...

Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember...

-opening to "Don Quixote"

Anyone who’s grown up under communism can appreciate Cuban émigré Erisbel Tavio’s taste in books.

To survive totalitarian governments, and occasionally stand up to them, it helps to be a little insane. And there’s no more heroic nut in all of literature than Don Quixote, the protagonist of the classic novel of the same name by Spanish author Miguel Cervantes.

“Especially when you are in a system like Cuba,” says Tavio, “we need crazy people like Don Quixote to fight for the most vulnerable.”

Tavio, who first read "Don Quixote" as a teenager on the island, is today a graduate student in Spanish at Florida International University in Miami, where the novel is his focus. This weekend FIU is hosting a Cervantes symposium – one that holds special significance since this year marks the 400th anniversary of "Quixote's" completion in 1615. (Cervantes published the first part in 1605 and the second part a decade later.)

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The famed windmill scene from "Don Quixote"
Credit Gustave Dore / Wikimedia Commons

It’s no doubt an important commemoration. After the Bible, “Don Quixote” is the most published and translated book in the world. Cervantes is the Shakespeare of Spanish – and that matters more in the U.S. than it used to since Hispanics are now the country’s largest minority. More than 50 million people speak español in the U.S. today.

Still – in 2015  how relevant is this thousand-page-long, 17th-century saga of a crazy old Spaniard who thinks he’s a heroic knight? It’s another heavy doorstop novel, right?

“It’s quite the opposite,” argues FIU Spanish professor Ricardo Castells. “It’s actually something that’s a pleasure to read. You’re not slogging through a 400-year-old book that you can’t understand.”

He's right. At its core, this is a comic novel that regales us with the delusional exploits of Don Quixote and his chubby sidekick, Sancho Panza. Cervantes gets it rolling with perhaps the story’s most famous episode, a battle against windmills that Quixote insists are evil giants.

The windmills win. But when you’re done chuckling at the satirical, absurdist nature of this scene, it begins to dawn on you: “Don Quixote” isn’t 400 years old. It was 400 years ahead of its time.

We need crazy people like Don Quixote to fight for the most vulnerable. – Erisbel Tavio

“It broke with everything that had been published at the time,” says Anne Cruz, a professor of Spanish at the University of Miami who started the Florida Cervantes symposium a decade ago.

Like most scholars, Cruz considers “Don Quixote” the first modern novel. It mocked medieval chivalry centuries before Monty Python did. It imagined magical realism before García Márquez did. It tore down walls between actors and audience before Woody Allen did.

Its carnival of characters, from seemingly every country and social class, was global way before globalization – and takes us well beyond the narrow, courtly world most European authors dwelled on in that age.

Cervantes “wanted to include as many people as he saw himself,” says Cruz, “and that included what we would now call minorities.”

I met “Don Quixote” 30 years ago in a literature class in Venezuela at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) in Caracas, taught by the late, beloved professor Ernestina Salcedo. I would put Rodrigo’s guitar concertos in my cassette player (I think his “Fantasía para un Gentilhombre” sets just the right mood for reading “Quixote”) and dive into every delightful chapter.

Padgett cramming for a Don Quixote exam in 1985 in Caracas.
Credit Yolaluis Perez-Padgett

And I’ll admit: it changed me. It’s a mistake to cast Don Quixote as a symbol of folly and futility – of “tilting at windmills.” It’s Quixote’s profound idealism that makes the book so universally popular: He inspires you to be the hero you want to be.

That hit me most after reading the chapter in which Quixote and Sancho hop in an “enchanted” boat and float down a river to rescue what our knight believes is a princess held hostage in a castle. After they themselves are rescued from drowning, Cervantes remarks, “Volvieron a sus bestias, y a ser bestias…” They returned to their beasts – and to being beasts.

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The point, to me anyway, is that at least Quixote was trying to break the bonds of our mundane existence – to reach for being something more than the restricted “beasts” the world too often makes us. Quixote may be a loon, but he flies.

I resolved to become a foreign correspondent while studying “Don Quixote.” I even manned up and fell in love: I met my wife Yola in that class. (Consider her my Dulcinea. Read the book and you'll get that.) Castells of FIU knows what I’m talking about.

“Don Quixote creates his own life, or re-creates his life,” says Castells. “It’s that Renaissance notion of refashioning yourself. His adventures are in a sense his bucket list.”

That idea resonates in America – and especially today in Latin America, where social mobility is finally starting to feel like a reality. I checked in with current UCAB students, who have found their own fresh “Quixote” meanings.

“Don Quixote doesn’t let the world impose its identity on him,” says Rennyer González. “He defies society’s rules the way Cervantes plays with literary rules.”

And even though Quixote likes to rescue damsels in distress, UCAB student María Betania Caldera told me her generation finds a feminist message:

“Any woman reading this sees the possibility of liberating herself from stereotypes,” she told me.

Marcela, the independent shepherdess from "Don Quixote"
Credit Gustave Dore / Wikimedia Commons

Cruz of UM agrees that women in “Don Quixote” were also centuries ahead of the curve.

“Cervantes gives them voice,” she says. “They have so much agency; they take initiative.”

She points to the beautiful but self-reliant shepherdess Marcela, who rejects 17th-century expectations of marriage with statements like, “…I am free and do not care to submit to another... .”

Early American readers sensed that freedom theme in “Quixote” – and the reality that the U.S. was sharing a hemisphere with Spanish-speakers. Thomas Jefferson was a big “Don Quixote” fan who urged his compatriots to learn the language of Cervantes.

“He saw it," says Ignacio Olmos, executive director of the Instituto Cervantes in New York, "as the best way to be a cosmopolitan American citizen."

And to grasp the truth that our loftiest heroes are often a tad nuts.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.