Four hundred years ago, on April 23, 1616, Miguel de Cervantes died in Madrid. A former soldier who had fought bravely and been wounded at the battle of Lepanto, a captive for five years in Algiers, an impoverished tax collector who had troubles with his accounts and twice wound up in jail, a failed playwright, he had the satisfaction of having published, in 1605 and a second part in 1615, Don Quixote de la Mancha, a book that he knew ranked among the great works of literature in the Western tradition. He could not know that on the same date, but not quite the same day because England and Spain followed different calendars, William Shakespeare was dying in Stratford-on-Avon.
He had written and produced a number of unsurpassable plays with unforgettable characters who toiled in the midst of the supreme trials of human life, expressing them in the highest kind of poetic language English would ever know. It was quite a historical coincidence, even if slightly off.
Cervantes had invented two characters, Don Quixote and Sancho, who would become a universal pair representing opposing yet complimentary approaches to the dilemmas of modern existence. The Englishman’s life was a success, the Spaniard’s was not, though by the time he passed, he had overcome the extreme poverty that he had endured, and received some of the recognition that the Madrid literary establishment had denied him. Miguel died resigned yet content, at peace with the world and with himself, buoyed by the religious faith that he had never abandoned, even in his worst moments of despair or at the height of his bold literary experiments, which put him at the cutting edge of the philosophical inquiries of his time.
Cervantes came upon the immortal Don Quixote gradually. He had set out to compose a long short story similar to others that he would write throughout his career, about a mature gentleman who goes insane from reading too many romances of chivalry, whose protagonists he wants to emulate. He wrote the first few chapters, which included Don Quixote’s visit to an inn, which he takes to be a castle, is cared for by prostitutes that he treats as ladies, and is dubbed a knight by the innkeeper. He returns home to pick up a few necessary items for his journey but is badly beaten by the servants of travelling merchants who find him ridiculous and amusing. A kindly neighbour carries him to his house.
Back in it, the priest, the barber, the housekeeper and Don Quixote’s niece purge his library of the romances of chivalry that they supposed caused his insanity. This was going to be the end of the story, with which Cervantes, we assume, was understandably dissatisfied.
It is at this point that Quixote as we know him was born. Cervantes came up with the idea of adding Sancho, a local peasant, as squire to the knight, and a second sally was planned and executed surreptitiously. With the two on their way, the adventures flow, led by their chance encounters on the road. Variety, provided by the different kinds of people and situations that they find, contributes to the increasing richness of the adventures. Some, like the one in which Don Quixote charges some windmills, have become emblematic, known to all, even if they have not read the book.
I believe that after the scrutiny of the books, Cervantes discovered the possibilities of the character that he had invented. Here is a mature man, beyond the pressures of finding a life for himself, who sets out with a head full of essentially medieval ideas and ideals bent on making the tawdry present that he inhabits coincide with those ideals. The humour in the situation is a given from the start, particularly with the knight’s ridiculously obsolete attire, which he has fashioned for himself, and Cervantes does not eschew scenes of low comedy involving both characters. They are hilarious.
Early readers of the book only saw this, however, blind to the higher kind of irony that pervades the story and which secured its universal appeal. This involves the pathos of Don Quixote’s predicament, which has a modern feel to it: He wants to set the world aright but is armed with the weakest of weapons, particularly his battered body and deranged mind. The knight is in pursuit of principles that no longer exist (or ever existed) and of a lady who is a figment of his imagination. The world around him provides plenty of opportunities for the ideal and the real to clash.
Cervantes added to this formula a potent dose of self-deprecation and self-doubt, particularly about his own craft as storyteller, which are also modern. He begins with the 1605 prologue, which is about the difficulties that he encounters in writing a prologue.
It is a hysterical piece of self-reflection that continues throughout the book and culminates in Part Two, when Don Quixote visits in Barcelona a printing shop where an apocryphal version of his own story is being produced. That second part is full of characters who have read Part One and expect the knight and his squire to act as they had in that book. Fiction has become part of their “reality”, and they know that they are literary characters themselves. All modern novelists owe Cervantes this self-reflexive cast to the genre they practise, and none has managed to go further than he in exploiting its inherently ironic nature. Cervantes lives on in that ironic dimension from which he still leads the novelistic genre that he invented.