Don Quijote de la Mancha

En un lugar de la Mancha…

When I picked up El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes last week and opened it on the first page (okay, in my edition that would be page 113), and read,

En un lugar de la Mancha,

de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo…

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen…

 …I felt the heady effect of a sudden shift in time and space: all at once I was somewhere in La Mancha, under a harsh sun, confronting whitewashed windmills.

Somewhere in La Mancha… Cerro Calderico, near Consuegra. Photo by Manuel via Flickr. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

(Cervantes once looked at these.)

—¿Qué gigantes?—dijo Sancho Panza.
—Aquellos que allí ves —respondió su amo— de los brazos largos, que los suelen tener algunos de casi dos leguas.
—Mire vuestra merced —respondió Sancho— que aquellos que allí se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento…

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills…

It is not often that you pick up a book – no matter how old, how famous – and you’re transported with such urgency before you even finished reading the first half sentence. But the unassuming En un lugar de la Mancha… must be the most well-known and memorable first line in Spanish-language literature – ever.

Somehow it doesn’t quite work the same way in other languages.


When Less Is More

Windmill in Campo de Criptana. Photo by Pablo Sanchez via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
But although the first line of Don Quijote is so famous, do you know anybody who actually read the book cover to cover, unabridged? Because I don’t.

Despite of the fact that an army of vehement literary critics and academics maintain that Cervantes was a great writer, a genius even, Don Quijote remains one of those books that people gift – not read. You know the type of book I mean. The kind your uncle gives you as a graduation present, the kind that looks appropriate on a middle class bookshelf.

The thing is the academics are probably right: even by the high standards of Spanish literature, Cervantes is right up there, with the best of them. He certainly didn’t lack originality and he had a tongue-in-cheek way of commenting on characters and situations that I find more diverting than the actual story. But there’s a caveat and it’s this: in Don Quijote Cervantes wrote a parody – of books we haven’t read (nor do we want to, if we trust his opinion). This makes his comments on said books somewhat tedious. In addition, there’s the small matter of the countless diversions, nothing to do with our ingenioso hidalgo. Par for the 17th century but not so much in vogue today.

As it happens, I’m greatly in favour of a book that preserves the author’s idiosyncrasies right down to his lack of consistency in spelling (it has a certain je ne sais quoi – merely reading it makes me feel sophisticated). Nor am a fan of excessive editing, abridging and general dumbing down, but if there’s a book that calls for it, it’s Don Quijote. The Spanish version that I finally dared to attempt last week has come off the press as Cervantes had written it: not a comma struck off by a daring editor. After the first few chapters I shamelessly started to skip pages.

Luckily, in 2014 the Real Academia Española finally succeeded in complying with an instruction of the Spanish government – given to them in 1912 – to produce a popular y escolar (popular and scholastic) adaption of the novel.

The task was completed by the Spanish writer and member of the RAE, Arturo Pérez-Reverte – a favourite author of mine, who (for all that he is a great fan of Cervantes) commented afterwards that Don Quijote ‘should never be read at the age of 15’ in the pristine original anyway. Well, I’m all with him on that one. You should only read the pristine original when you’re on a desert island and have ample time to dip in and out of it, while you’re waiting on the beach for a passing ship. For the rest of us, Pérez-Reverte cut out the diversions and did away with the mountain of explanatory notes while still keeping Cervantes’s language… So on Sunday night, in the middle of Part III of Volume I, I shelved my scholarly copy and put the RAE edition on my Amazon wishlist instead.

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, Plaza de España, Madrid. Photo by רנדום via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Lost in La Mancha

But I also can’t help thinking that Don Quijote is one of those books that cry out to be filmed – the beauty of a film version being that cinematography doesn’t allow the kind of meandering that Cervantes the writer could indulge in. Although you’d lose Cervantes’s witty asides, what would be left should still make a great film: the mind-boggling adventures of Don Quijote and his interaction with the down-to-earth Sancho. Throw in an handful of judiciously selected supporting characters, the landscape of La Mancha and you’re go.

As it happens, Terry Gilliam – of Monty Python fame – agrees. Apparently he spent the last twenty years in attempting to film Don Quijote and the end is now in sight: the film is due to come out next year. It even involves a marketing executive à la A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain.

Better still, during the wait we can entertain ourselves with Terry Gilliam’s documentary, Lost in La Mancha, about all the mishaps that befell the filming of Don Quijote in the depths of rural Spain: from NATO exercises ruining the sound recordings to a flash flood washing away the set and altering the landscape for good, not to mention the leading actor suffering a slipped disc and the insurance company sitting on the script for eight years…

You might also like:Don Quijote by CervantesSome of the early illustrations of Don Quijote via the Cervantes Institute (in Spanish)
⇒ Sanchos que intentan ser quijotes (El País)
⇒ Pérez-Reverte afirma que "'El Quijote' no debería leerse nunca con 15 años a palo seco" (20minutos.es)
⇒ A selection of scenes from Monty Python's Life of Brian 
⇒ And if you want to hike in Don Quijote country: Ruta de Don Quijote
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10 thoughts on “Don Quijote de la Mancha

  1. Sorry to break your record but I have read the full edition cover to cover many years ago – in English I must admit – and enjoyed it. I did study Spanish in the remote past and it has been a source of regret ever since that I have never got to Spain – France has claimed me so consistently in my travels. It was nice to read the Spanish extracts – It is a lovely language. Des.

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    1. I’m not suprised to hear that you did read it cover to cover… because if I remember correctly, you also read Pepys cover to cover and I don’t think there’s a lot of us…

      The truth is I decided to read the RAE edition because it seems to me more what I want at the moment – which is to read the story of Don Quijote’s adventures, many of which I’ve forgotten completely. The current edition I’ve got was given to me as a birthday present by my daughter a few years ago when I said I wanted to try and read a Spanish book. She went down to Foyle’s and the only reason she bought Don Quijote because she said Cervantes was the only author whose name she had recognised! (She’s moved on to study Spanish at university since so she knows a few more authors now.) I’d still like to read it but it’ll probably have to wait until I’m retired and have enough time to pick it up, read a chapter or two, lay it aside, come back to it another day.

      As for Spanish, I agree it’s indeed a lovely language and there are a couple more quotes in Spanish under (predictably) Quotes in the top menu if you care to look. Including from Cervantes.

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  2. George

    I’ve never read it but have always intended to. I might have to add the RAE version to my Amazon wish list too. Looking forward to Terry Gilliam’s take on it.

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    1. Me too… 🙂

      You will have to source the RAE edition from Amazon.es because it’s not available on .co.uk (although perhaps it’s available from some other UK bookshops, I didn’t check). But the handful of reviews it got there are all good, except for one reader who complained that it still reads as Cervantes! 🙂 If you look up the article in El País (link at the bottom of the post), Pérez-Reverte said that he didn’t put in any wording of his own: whenever he needed to replace a word that became obsolete or put in a linking text after cutting something, he used Cervantes’s own phrases from elsewhere. Sounds good to me.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay, amigo, you beat me hands down! I only read it in Hungarian – ages ago – but it was abridged. Por cierto, ¿has visto alguna vez los molinos de viento de la Mancha durante tus viajes?

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