I mentioned in my last post that Cervantes does some strange — and, to me, some startlingly modern — things with the narrative form in Don Quixote. This begins in the first part of the novel, not just with the embedded (and sometimes nested) stories I mentioned earlier, but with the way Cervantes plays with the authorship of the story itself. In the prologue, he claims to be “not the father but the stepfather” of Don Quixote, implying either that he didn’t write it himself, or that the story is not invented but true, and that therefore the reader can exercise her own judgment about it. (I mentioned this queer lack of the didactic in my last post, another thing that makes this writing so modern.)
Later, in chapter 9, Cervantes describes finding a volume in Arabic among some old notebooks and papers. When he brings it to a Morisco (a converted Christian of Muslim heritage) to be translated, it turns out to be the continuation of Don Quixote, written by a Moor: Cide Hamete Benengeli. (And we get the continuation just in time, since the last chapter left Don Quixote with his sword raised against a Basque foe.) The remainder of the book, then, is supposedly a translation of this work from Arabic into Castilian, and from time to time we get the commentary of either the “author,” Benengeli, or the “stepfather,” Cervantes.
It’s in Part II, though, that things get really complicated. In Chapter II of the second part of the novel, Sancho Panza informs Don Quixote that some Moor has written the story of his life, “leaving nothing in the inkwell.” Every adventure he’s been on is detailed in this novel, says Sancho, every sheep, every windmill — “and other things that happened when we were alone, so that I crossed myself in fear at how the historian who wrote them could have known about them.” How could this be? Is it some enchantment? And so the real book, Don Quixote, becomes an entity, and an influence, on the fictional character of Don Quixote, who only hopes that the author (or the “author”) will have established his good reputation as a knight errant.
The consequences of this publication follow the knight and his squire throughout the second part of the novel. Wherever Don Quixote goes, he meets people who are already aware of his history and his madness. They already know his weak spot, and what behavior to expect of him. They already know that Sancho Panza will spout proverbs and foolish witticisms, and they stare at him: say something funny! When the duchess meets them for the first time, she knows them instantly, and Sancho confirms it:
“He’s the very one, Senora,” responded Sancho, and that squire of his who is, or ought to be, in that history, the one named Sancho Panza, is me, unless I was changed for another in the cradle, I mean the printing press.” (p. 655)
(This cradle/ printing press slip is glorious.) For the duchess, of course, it’s like meeting a celebrity you’ve seen on TV a hundred times, someone you could fix a meal for because you already know his favorite food.
More complicated still: in real life (I am getting confused as to what that means, but bear with me), after the first part of Don Quixote was published, a “false Quixote” appeared — a sequel to the original, not written by Cervantes. Its real author has never been identified, but it was published under the name of Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. Apparently, the Quixote and Sancho Panza of Avellaneda’s imagining were coarse and crude, and worst of all, Don Quixote renounced his love for Dulcinea. Cervantes heard about this publication as he was writing chapter LIX of his own second part. He instantly creates two gentlemen who are reading (and taking no pleasure in) Avellaneda’s false Quixote, and complaining about it. Don Quixote overhears them, and is able to contradict the truth of it personally, at which, naturally, the gentlemen rejoice. It is another sort of expectation they have of him, having read the first part of the story:
Here they considered him intelligent, and there he seemed to slip into foolishness, and they could not determine precisely where to place him between intelligence and madness. (p. 847)
One of the things fiction does is to enable us to read the world. It’s one of the greatest joys of reading: to slip into someone else’s skin for a while, and understand other ways of being, through the work of great artists. The greater the work, the more of the world we read — and I don’t necessarily mean more widely, but better, because the writing is better, or the artistry is finer, or the reflection on the human spirit is deeper. One of the things Don Quixote does is to teach us that the world also reads us. There we are, our madness, our folly, our deepest loves and motivations, on display in novels, for better or for worse. There we are, right from the beginning, being written, being read.