Quixotically enduring

Cervantes' tragicomic epic of adventure and struggle is still attracting readers 400 years after it was written


In a certain village in La Mancha, which I do not wish to name, there lived long ago a gentleman . . . It has been four centuries since Miguel de Cervantes wrote those words. And, unlike most other words written that long ago, we are still reading them.

Don Quixote celebrates its 400th birthday in 2005, which has made it the subject of celebrations, seminars, exhibits and commemorations throughout the year. The George Peabody Library in Mount Vernon Square is displaying its collection of Don Quixote editions through Jan. 15. The exhibit, Celebrating 400 Years of Don Quixote de la Mancha, traces "the publication history of a work that has been translated more frequently than any other work except the Bible."

Relatively few people make their way through all 900 or so pages of the twopart novel, but there is almost no one who does not know the story of this misguided champion of chivalry and his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, characters who are at once tragic and comic, whose plight seems to have found a sympathetic chord in every generation since readers first met them in 1605.

The book's survival can be attributed to the strength of Cervantes' story and to the malleability of these characters, who seem to fit any age. But it is also because the book thrives on two distinct levels - at once a rollicking tale that attracts a sophisticated audience and a complex meditation that fascinates intellectuals.

At times - particularly in the second part, published 10 years after the first- it is as if Cervantes anticipated our postmodern, media-saturated age and all the questions it raises about art and reality. Many consider it the greatest novel everwritten.

"Technically, it is sort of amazing how you can get people caught up in a story that they know is kind of silly, and yet they still wind up reading on," says Robert Sloane, who is teaching a course called "Happy Birthday, Don Quixote" this fall at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The book winds up a lot of times being about books, about reading books and writing books, the very existence of books."

As with the writings of his contemporary, Shakespeare, Cervantes' prose has entered the vernacular. Whenever you accuse someone of tilting at windmills, you owe Cervantes a footnote.

And, again like Shakespeare's plays, Don Quixote has inspired those in every other artistic medium - playwrights, ballet choreographers, composers of opera and,most famously,musical theater.

"The first thing my students discover is that Don Quixote is not [Man of La Mancha]," says Sloane. "Certainly there is the idealismof Don Quixote that everybody expects to fall in love with, and many people do. But it's a rough ride before they get there. For one thing, he's really arrogant. He's so full of himself, students are offended. And he's not democratic. He treats everyone as if he is their superior."

Emilie Bergmann, who often teaches the novel at the University of California at Berkeley, reports a similar experience.

"Students expect this Man of La Mancha hero, but Don Quixote really is crazy," she says. "Kind of violently crazy too. There are so many ways to approach it. Every time I teach it, I take a different one."

Bergmann says that what most people know of the novel are its first eight chapters, which take readers through the farcical adventure of Don Quixote's mistaking windmills for giants. Despite Sancho Panza's warning, Don Quixote charges them on his steed, Rocinante, getting his comeuppance when his lance catches in the rotating arm of the windmill, throwing the gallant knight to the ground.

Sancho Panza approaches with an I-told-you-so comment, only to be upbraided by his master, who blames a wizard for changing the giants into windmills, "to cheat me of the glory of conquering them."

It's clear that you don't try to fight Don Quixote's vision; you just come along for the ride.

"You could spend a semester, even an entire year, on those first eight chapters," Bergmann says. "When you get past them, Cervantes tells the love story from different angles throughout the first part, and then, in the second part, you get the dark side.

"What I say is that the first part is about storytelling and the second part is about art and death," she says.

Cervantes introduces Don Quixote as a man of about 50 who had spent way too much time reading books about chivalry. He decides that these tales of long-gone times must be true. So he puts on his rusty armor and heads out to bend reality to fit his dementia, even inventing a damsel in distress, Dulcinea.

Cervantes wrote the second part because the first partwas a hit. So that became part of the story. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza encounter people who have read the book - or a counterfeit sequel - and have certain expectations about how this misguided pairwill behave.

The result is a book that William Faulkner once said he read every year, and that the Marx Brothers must certainly have readmore than once.

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