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.
(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
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.
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 Cervantes ⇒ Some 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