Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Published by Diogenes, 1987
He is just as sympathetic as he is out of luck, ‘The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha’ who constitutes the main character of two-part novel Miguel de Cervantes published in 1605 and 1615. Its more than 2,000 editions have been translated into more than 50 languages. As one of the most famous works of world literature, ‘Don Quixote’ was often filmed and brought on theater stages. That is a huge success for somebody whose specialty event is failing.
Like his contemporaries Don Quixote is fond of chivalric romances. He loves to immerse himself in the stories of noblemen who lead a carefree life without work. This is what many want. Among them the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. He identifies himself with the hero of the novel so much that he can no longer tell reality from imagination.
And so the self-proclaimed knight Don Quixote embarks on his adventures. In his struggle against misfortune and honor, he is joined by an old jade named Rocinante and his pragmatic squire Sancho Panza, of small stature and protruding belly.
After a promising start, however, Don Quixote more and more loses his mind. He fights against windmills because he considers them giants. In a herd of sheep he sees a mighty army. And he snatches away a barber’s shaving basin, for he recognizes it as the helmet of the giant Mambrinus.
What Cervantes wrote like an entertaining story actually entails substantial social criticism. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the plundering of the mineral resources in the South American colonies swept immense wealth into Spanish coffers. A whole fleet was needed to ship the masses of silver to the motherland. However, only a few benefited from the newly gained riches. These lucky few include neither the generous Don Quixote nor his witty squire Sancho Panza. Honor and happiness are not for them, either.
In ‘Don Quixote’, Cervantes portrays a lovingly tragic figure who, through a complete and utter failure, caricatures the chivalric romances. Just as adventurous as the life of the main character is the biography of its author. Born 1547 as a member of the lower nobility, Miguel de Cervantes left the country, for he was to lose his hand as punishment for a crime he allegedly committed. Subsequently, he was a chamberlain at the papal court in Italy, was wounded in the naval battle of Lepanto and finally captured by pirates. Once free, he fell into disgrace with the church and was finally held liable for the embezzlement of another man. Incarcerated, he then started writing ‘Don Quixote’.
Already during his lifetime, Miguel de Cervantes witnessed the yet unbroken success of his fantastic novel before he died in 1616 at the age of 69.