Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
reviewed by Norma Aguirre Gaines
Office of Fiscal Affairs
I have a confession to make. I avoided Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes for years because I was intimidated by its status as a “classic.” I was not sure I was up to its age, length, and footnotes until several occurrences caused me to give myself and this wonderful book a chance. Let me tell you about how I came to read Don Quixote, a book you can read as much for its great adventures as for its messages about integrity and honesty.
For me, it began with a silver key chain. An SU history professor, a person who loves reading as much as I do, gave it to me when he returned from a trip to Spain. Sitting within the bright circle of silver was a gaunt knight, carrying a lance and sitting on top of a thin horse. Beside him was a squire on a donkey. I’d grown up seeing such images of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They appeared in many forms and places, but somehow I just never picked up the book to learn about those famous characters.
As I stared down at this key chain, a sudden recollection floated through my mind. I remembered that during his visit to the Southwestern campus, noted author Russell Banks was asked, “What books would you want to have with you on a desert island?” Don Quixote was on his list. I had also recently heard film director Terry Gilliam speak on National Public Radio about his decade-long attempt to make the famous book into a movie. His project ultimately failed, but his failure resulted in a documentary about his attempt—a documentary that reviewers loved. I asked the professor who gave me the key chain if he’d ever read the book. He told me it was one of his favorite stories.
So, it became clear to me that I needed to check out Don Quixote to see for myself why it still mattered so much after hundreds of years and to so many different people from different countries. I was happily surprised that I was immediately drawn into this magnificent story.
Cervantes wrote this story between 1605 and 1615, and he gave us a tale of chivalry, romance, and adventure. Especially enjoyable to me was his technique of putting stories—narrated by other pilgrim travelers —within the story of the knight errant. There is great play with language (Spanish and English), and the twists and turns are numerous. A reader learns that 16th century Spain (the story takes place in the 1500s) was a happening time and place. Given the numbers of Moors and Arabs in Spain at that time, the story is colorful with them as well as Spaniards, captives, galley slaves, beautiful women, and handsome swashbucklers. I discovered that it is a masterpiece of variety and information, a perfect blend of excitement and ideas. No wonder Mr. Banks and Mr. Gilliam and readers everywhere were drawn to it.
The noble Don Quixote remains true to his mission despite those around him who laugh in his face. Many see he’s mad and placate him, and others set him up in situations where he becomes their evening entertainment. His heart, however, remains kind and true, and he stands ready to face any foe with such bravery. The man from La Mancha is an impractical visionary who only wants to right all wrongs. And in the end …well, you’ll have to read that for yourself.
The journeys of this knight and his squire are filled with humor and goodness. Maybe that is why—in this age of vivid visual identities—they have managed to maintain very recognizable images among the bric-a-brac of the 21st century. I’ve seen the iconography in Mexico and in border towns where metal art has a favorite subject. That subject is Cervantes’ lovable characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Now I know why.
Yes…there is a segment about attacking windmills, which Quixote believes are really giants. But if you are tired of that too-often-told storyline, it takes place early in the story, and is very brief. There are many more utterly chimerical stories that are just waiting to entertain you while you are floating through time with this book.
Since this is a story about journeys, I suggest you cart this book around on your own summer journey, and don’t wait to read it for the first time when you are a “grown up” (whatever that means). Read it now, then re-read it later when you are an old fogey, because this is a book you’ll want to carry with you through your own life journey.