Our Knight In Shining Armor

Earlier this year I read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, or at least the accessible translation by Edith Grossman. This 17th century literary classic about the deluded knight and his sidekick, Sancho Panza -- and their foolhardy quest for noble adventure -- is a very big book that I repeatedly tried to read when I was younger but could never complete. But this year I made my way through the tome, plodding step by plodding step, feeling great empathy for Don Quixote's old nag, Rocinante, every step of the way.

But I fought the good fight, through the dated prose, through the beguiling tales of the kind but deluded donkey-face "knight," who wears a barber's basin on his head and sees a tired roadside inn as a castle, and a flock of traveling sheep as an army of marauding enemies. As you all know, it is in essence a timeless road trip, with lots of earthy moments, including my favorite ribald scene when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza start violently vomiting over each other.

And yet the work, most crucially, is also about the eternal struggle between those who believe in the power of the imagination and books, versus those who believe that looking harsh reality straight in the face is the only true way to live a life. Sound familiar? Cervantes's greatness is that he lyrically and persuasively makes the arguments for both worldviews.

My friend, the writer Kazuo Ishiguro, years ago urged me to pick up Cervantes's classic, saying that many of the great writers claimed it to be the well-spring of all modern literature. I recall being rather skeptical of his claim at the time, but I should have known better. Just look at what some of the grandmasters have said about Don Quixote over the years,  which, incidentally, Cervantes started writing while in jail (supposedly for malfeasance as a tax collector), before finally completing the classic in 1615. These quotes are found in the back of the book's HarperColins edition.

"Don Quixote is the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction; here you have Gogol and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Nabokov, Borges and Bellow, Sterne and Diderot in their genetic nakedness, once more taking to the road with the gentleman and the squire, believing the world is what we read and discovering that the world reads us." ~ Carlos Fuentes.

"It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote." ~ Lionel Trilling

"How its creative genius -- critical, free, and human -- soars above its age." ~ Thomas Mann

"Cervantes is the founder of the Modern Era...The novelist needs answer to no one but Cervantes. Don Quixote is practically unthinkable as a living being, and yet, in our memory, what character is more alive?" ~ Milan Kundera

"Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes' womb. [He] looms so wonderfully above the skyline of literature, a gaunt giant on a lean nag, that the book lives and will live through [his] sheer vitality. ..He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure , unselfish, and galant. The parody has become a paragon."~ Vladimir Nabokov

"Don Quixote begins as a province, turns into Spain, and ends as a universe...The true spell of Cervantes is that he is a natural magician in pure story-telling." ~ V.S. Pritchett

Impressive stuff. Don't you agree?