DON QUIXOTE by Miguel de Cervantes

I recently decided to revisit a classic novel that I hadn't read in over two decades. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. On the recommendation of author Peter David, I found the edition translated by Edith Grossman -- and I was very, very pleased.

Don Quixote is a novel in two parts. The first part is about one of literature's most famous duos, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Don Quixote began as Alonso Quixano, a thin, elderly gentleman who read too many novels about knights and decided that he was a knight errant. With some very makeshift armor and weapons, and his trusty (if tall and thin) steed Rocinante, he becomes Don Quixote, a knight errant out to do good, win battles, promote chivalry, and win fame for his lady, the most beautiful Dulcinea of Toboso (even though Don Quixote has never even seen her). His squire is Sancho Panza, a plump, talkative (usually stringing together many, many proverbs), always-hungry man who follows his master on a donkey and believes his master will give him governorship of an insula (or island) in payment for his services. Several townspeople try to get Don Quixote back and sane: the barber, the priest, and the Bachelor Sanson Carrasco. And there are adventures, from the famous windmills mistaken for giants to run-ins with courtly lovers and inns believed to be castles. Don Quixote is a very unskilled knight, usually on the losing end of a fight and always blaming enchanters for what no one but he sees.

The second part of Don Quixote becomes... strange. Set months after the first part, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza sally forth again -- only in a world where the first part of the novel was published and famous, giving us two fictional characters adventuring in a world where people know them and their story. Further, a duke and duchess decide to have fun with Don Quixote, actually creating several situations where Don Quixote's delusions about chivalry, enchantment, and battles are made real. And yes, Sancho Panza seems to be made governor of his insula. The most encountered adversary in this half of the novel is the anonymous author who wrote his own history of Don Quixote, which the real Don Quixote seeks to disprove.

I'm still not sure what to make of Don Quixote -- and that's good. Cervantes certainly makes Don Quixote appear foolish and points out the ridiculous nature of the tales of knight errantry; yet he also had Don Quixote as an incurable optimist, and Cervantes often uses and seems to enjoy elements of knight errantry through the novel. (In an early part of the book, several villagers decide to burn the library that drove Don Quixote mad. They also comment on the books, praising and keeping some while setting the others to be burned.) Don Quixote are an unusual master and servant, each aware of the other's faults but friends despite the arguments and difficulties. (There's a lot of character growth between the two as well.) And the introduction of the "real" world of knight errantry by the duke and duchess adds a false layer of realism to the delusional knight's journeys. It's a lot to think about, and like any great book it doesn't give just one answer to its many questions.

Also, this 16th-century work feels quite modern, largely to the translation done by Edith Grossman. Rather than making a simple, dry translation, Grossman infuses this Don Quixote with life, humor, and lively wordplay. (One of the extras has a few paragraphs of her version and another one, and the difference is striking.) If you are afraid this will be a dull, dry classic, get this edition and enjoy an amusing odyssey.

Don Quixote may be the most famous knight (vying with King Arthur for the title) and is probably the least skilled night, but his journeys with the faithful Sancho Panza are quite literally the stuff of legend. This edition of Don Quixote is entertaining, thought-provoking, and immensely satisfying.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

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