Don Quixote's Delusions: Travels in Castilian Spainby Miranda France
Miranda France is a travel writer-cum-literary critic with an unsparingly truthful and delightfully absurd voice. "She has a wonderfully quick and vivid eye for convincing detail," said Christopher House in The Spectator. Her new book tells us about Spain by juxtaposing Cervantes's life and his character's adventures with the author's own delightful/b>/b>… See more details below
Miranda France is a travel writer-cum-literary critic with an unsparingly truthful and delightfully absurd voice. "She has a wonderfully quick and vivid eye for convincing detail," said Christopher House in The Spectator. Her new book tells us about Spain by juxtaposing Cervantes's life and his character's adventures with the author's own delightful anecdotes, incomparable characters, and insightful observations.
At the heart of Miranda France's utterly engaging book are two very different visits to Spain, set ten years apart. In 1987, the author spent her student year in Madrid-when post-Franco ebullience was at its height and pornography and soft drugs were legalized, along with divorce, party-affiliation, and kissing in the street. A return trip to central Spain, taken in 1998, shows France that much has changed in the country, but also that much has endured. An incomparable cast of real-life characters, along with France's compelling investigations of the world's first novel, Cervantes's Don Quixote-published in 1605 and, the author finds out, the most translated book after the Bible-reveal much about the identity of modern Spain and its people.
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Read an Excerpt
Don Quixote's Delusions
TRAVELS IN CASTILIAN SPAIN
By Miranda France
THE OVERLOOK PRESS
Copyright © 2001 Miranda France.
All rights reserved.
A Dead Man in Madrid
This book starts with a funeral and ends with a christening, although neither of those events turned out to be quite what it seemed.
The funeral took place in a chapel in Madrid, and was presided over by a priest with a streaming cold. The chapel was inside one of the city's oldest convents, home to a declining population of elderly nuns. It was a closed order, so although the women were present, they were nowhere to be seen. Four ceremonial candles stood guard around the coffin, which was draped in purple, signifying the status of the deceased. About fifty men and women were gathered towards the front of the chapel where storage heaters had been placed to comfort the mourners.
The women were mostly stocky inside close-fitting clothes, like small pieces of upholstered furniture, and they had hairstyles that might have been made by the same, helmet-shaped mould. Some of the men had their coats draped around their shoulders as if they had never lost the medieval habit of cape-wearing. Outside it was a pleasant, spring evening, but the warmth did not penetrate the convent's stone heart. The ancient buildings of Castile are designed to cling on to cold even in the hottest summer.
I was sitting at the front of the chapel, close to the coffin. Like most of those present, I was an admirer of the dead man, though none of us could really say we knew him. So much of his life was shrouded in mystery, and now that all of him was shrouded there were many things we would never be sure about. He had been a wanderer. For years he had drifted on the roads of central and southern Spain, taking jobs that had a habit of landing him in trouble. He had been both imprisoned and excommunicated at least twice and counted gamblers and criminals among his friends. His family life had been touched by scandal and he had an illegitimate daughter, but he was not otherwise a womaniser. Some said that he was a Jew, though he professed catholicism. Some said that he was gay, though others thought he had loved his wife, at least at the beginning. Everyone agreed that he was poor.
How much did these things matter now? He was dead, after all. Once a life is over the failures fade. The priest spoke the words of the mass quickly and in a low murmur, as if not to disturb the dead man, or some of the sleepier members of the congregation. But every so often a shrill lament disturbed his intonation. The chant seemed to rise from nowhere, as if it were drifting upwards from vents in the aisle or via the same mechanism that pipes muzak into shopping malls. At first I thought it was a recording, then I realised that the sound was being produced by the Barefoot Trinitarian Sisters, hidden from view in barred recesses behind the altar.
The nuns had been in claustura, shut up and cut off for years, decades even, from the outside world. Many of them would have taken up their vocations when Spain was a dictatorship and the choices for unmarried women were limited. I wondered if they felt cheated when they saw how women today could go out to work, or raise children on their own. Perhaps the priest sensed their breath on his neck; when called to raise his eyes to God he did so with the exasperation of one who would much rather be in bed. The air and the hush in the chapel were chilly, the congregation huddled into itself. If the nuns really were barefoot under their robes, their feet must have been cold.
The purple drape on the coffin shimmered in the candlelight. The low light and chanting, the priest's gentle sniffing created a peaceful atmosphere. The span of the dead man's life, on the other hand, showed more turbulence than calm. His failure to be recognised as a poet had always rankled with him, his attempts as a playwright were generally dismal. For twenty years he had published nothing, resigned to the fact that he would never make any money out of writing. No one knew for sure what had prompted him to take up the pen again, towards the end of his life, but a spell in prison may have been the motivation. Perhaps he felt, by then, that he had nothing left to lose. He was poor anyway, his life was wretched and all he had ever wanted to do was write.
A thin girl holding some university files arrived late and squeezed on to the end of our row, trying to muscle in on the storage heater to which she stretched out her hands. Her nose, slightly pink, seemed to pay tribute to the priest's.
But what if a life of disappointments were weighed against one, resounding success? Could it be enough to make up for the defeats and hardship? On top of the coffin there was a cushion, head-dented, as if a body had been resting there until moments ago, then moved on, heavenwards perhaps. Behind the coffin a dozen members of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language were ranged in splendid gilt chairs. They were elderly, creaking when they genuflected. The nuns were also very old, you could tell by the calibre of their trilling. Spain, which used to seem full of children, was now a country that worried about ageing. The birth rate was the lowest in Europe and the United Nations had said that twenty million immigrants would be needed to replace the dwindling stock of workers. Historically frightened of immigrants, Spain quaked at the prospect of another Moorish invasion.
When the time came for communion, the priest rang his little bell to signify the transformation of bread to body. As he approached the cage behind the altar two figures could be seen emerging from its shadows. Two sets of hands poked through the bars to receive the holy wafer. The other nuns and the singing suggested that there were many more than two were nowhere to be seen. I watched the old fingers appearing through the bars and could not help thinking again about the corresponding feet, gnarled and calloused. I thought of them pounding down the corridors on that day, in 1936, when extremists had stormed Madrid's convents. The anti-clerical hatred that had been brewing in Spain for decades had erupted in a terrifying violence that saw parish priests crucified and the corpses of nuns wrenched from their coffins. Spain's Republican president, Manuel Azaña, predicted that the blood would 'drown us all'. He was right, because civil war broke out soon afterwards.
The men and women of the congregation came forward to take communion from the priest who placed the wafers directly on to each proferred tongue. Then the communicants returned quietly to their pews, carrying God's blessing and the priest's virus. Some bowed their heads to pray.
A sense of sobriety and regret hung in the air of the chapel, but there were no tears. The mourners had no great grief to battle or assuage. They came to this funeral mass every year, so they knew that the coffin was empty. The man who should have occupied it had been dead for nearly four hundred years. He was now nothing more than a heap of bones, and even the bones were no longer heaped. He had been buried in the convent in 1616, but the skeleton was disturbed and scattered when the building was rebuilt at the end of the seventeenth century. No one knew exactly where he lay now.
He had no descendants; his possessions had been pawned and lost. The only physical pressence of the dead man was his work; four dusty tomes piled on the coffin contained his life's writing. Taken together they bore witness to his general failure and to his one, extraordinary triumph, because while some of the books were good, and others mediocre, one of them was the most successful novel in the history of publishing, the most translated work after the Bible. Indeed it was widely claimed as the world's first novel. The book was Don Quixote de la Mancha.
'We commend the soul of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra to the Lord,' sniffed the priest. The academicians genuflected. The nuns trilled. The pink-nosed student shivered and moved closer to a source of heat.
Don Quixote is Spain's most famous book, but its most striking effect has often been on readers who were not Spanish. The young Sigmund Freud skipped medical lectures to read it, and noted its influence on his ideas about psychoanalysis. Karl Marx inscribed a copy of it to Engels. Dostoevsky believed that 'a more profound and more powerful work than this one is not to be found. It is the finest and greatest utterance of the human mind.' Virginia Woolf said, 'Everything is there, in solution.'
The novel tells the story of Alonso Quixano, a fifty-year-old country gentleman who goes mad from reading too many chivalric adventures and decides to emulate them, styling himself 'Quixote'. A local labourer, the flatulent, wise-cracking Sancho Panza, agrees to act as squire. There is a supporting cast of academics, nuns, students and priests and there is an imaginary girlfriend, Dulcinea. What makes Don Quixote extraordinary is the humanity of its characters. Previously, 'romances' presented an idealised picture of life. In Don Quixote the characters are complex, unpredictable and able to change their minds about things.
Cervantes' own life was full of failures, misunderstandings, bankruptcies and prison sentences. He may have been in gaol when he got the idea for his famous novel. He must often have felt himself to be as beleaguered as Don Quixote.
He was born in 1547 at Alcalá de Henares, a small town close to Madrid which was, at that time, home to one of Europe's most important universities and a great centre of humanist teaching. However, Spain's intellectual life suffered under the regime of Philip II, in the second half of the sixteenth century, and, during Cervantes' lifetime, the country was increasingly cut off from the ideas of the Renaissance.
At the time of his birth, Spain's empire had reached its apogee and was poised for a long and painful descent. Heavily dependent on bank loans secured on the riches following from the New World, Spain made no efforts to modernise its economy. 'Everything', Philip II said, 'comes down to one thing: money and more money,' but many of the people who worked hardest for Spain were being forced to leave it.
After years of growing panic about the suspected duplicity of conversos Jews who had converted to Christianity all unbaptised Jews had been expelled in 1492. Some 300,000 Muslims would be made fo go in 1609. In 1600 the political theorist Martín de Cellorigo voiced a concern that would be heard repeatedly over the next four centuries. He said that Spain's fear of progress and a lack of realism in government risked turning it into 'a nation of enchanted people who live outside the natural order', a nation of Quixotes, in other words.
The son of a second-rate surgeon and blood-letter, Cervantes did not attend university, but when his family moved to Madrid, he studied with a follower of Erasmus, who encouraged him to be a writer. In 1569 Cervantes may have wounded someone in a duel records show that a man of his name was ordered to be arrested and to have his right hand cut off. Such a dramatic sentence would explain his hasty departure to Italy, where he took a job as chamberlain to a young Italian Monsignor. In order to get the position, he had to provide, as proof of his 'purity of blood', a certificate stating that he was not illegitimate and that there were no Muslims, Jews, conversos or anyone who had been in trouble with the Inquisition among his ancestors. He would spend the rest of his life producing such documents for one reason or another.
While in Italy Cervantes joined the army and at the Battle of Lepanto he received three harquebus wounds two in the breast and one that permanently maimed his left hand. If he had gone to Italy to save his right hand, he paid the price with the left, but he always claimed to consider his disability a 'beautiful' reminder of his part in the battle. The injury earned him a distinguished sobriquet by which he is still known in Spain: El Manco de Lepanto The One-Handed Man of Lepanto.
Cervantes fought again, in Corfu, Navarino and Tunis. In 1575 he was twenty-eight and on his way back to look for work in Spain he may even have been in sight of the northern coast when his ship was ambushed by slave-trading pirates. The passengers were taken to Algiers, where Cervantes was held for a ransom that was arbitrarily raised on the several occasions that Spanish representatives were sent to negotiate his release. Over the next five years his family put all their money, including their two daughters' dowries, towards the ransom. Cervantes made several unsuccessful attempts to escape and was threatened with execution, but finally two Trinitarian monks secured his release and returned him to Spain. He never forgot the debt of honour, and chose the Trinitarian convent for his final resting place.
His five years as a hostage must have marked Cervantes, and perhaps his long absence made it more difficult for him to find the sort of work he felt he deserved, in the king's service. Denied a pension, he was finally offered a post requisitioning corn for the Armada. But his seizure of corn belonging to the Church earned his excommunication and his poor accounts landed him in prison. His simultaneous attempts to write went largely unrewarded. At a time when Spain's theatre was dominated by the great Lope de Vega, his plays barely rated a mention. He had limited success with La Galatea, a novel written in the popular pastoral genre. He married Catalina de Palacios, a young widow, in 1584, but the union seems not to have been a happy one, and he spent years away from his wife. Poverty, family responsibilities and the burden of his empty marriage may have conspired against his chances. By the time Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, in his early fifties, he was a shipwreck.
'It may help a little to be distracted in order to write a masterpiece,' said Jorge Luis Borges of this late flowering creativity. Cervantes wondered how the public would receive his book 'after all these years I have spent sleeping in the silence of oblivion'.
The literary world into which Don Quixote was launched in 1605 was competitive and bitchy and there were plenty of writers who wanted the novel to fail. Lope de Vega, once Cervantes' friend, said that a reader would have to be 'stupid' to see any merit in it. After the novel's publication he sent Cervantes this note:
That trivial Don Quixote of yours now goes
Through the world from arse to arse, or serves
As wrapping paper for spices and cheap saffron,
And finally will end up in dumps and privies.
The letter was sent unstamped, so Cervantes also suffered the indignity of paying for this abuse.
The magnitude of his sudden success must have dazzled the man who was so used to failure. Within a few weeks Don Quixote had broken all publishing records. Seven editions, including pirate versions, were produced in the first year. An Englishman travelling in seventeenth-century Spain reported that copies of it could be found 'not only in almost every gentleman's house, but not seldom in inns, in barbers' shops, and in peasants' cottages and boys and girls, ten years old, understand it as well'.
Soon the book was translated into French, German and English. In France, Molière starred in a stage version. Quixote's reputation preceded him in England where the first translation appeared in 1612: five years earlier a character in a play by George Wilkins had declared that he was 'armed and ready to fight a windmill'. By the middle of the century, 'quixote' had become a common noun, used to denigrate Puritans.
William Shakespeare probably read Don Quixote and certainly collaborated on a play, since lost, inspired by one of its anecdotes. The knight and his squire soon became popular outside Europe, too, appearing at festivals in South America. Cervantes boasted that the Emperor of China had invited him to be rector of an Academy which would use his book as a text to teach Chinese students Spanish.
Cervantes was soon at work on a second part, but before he could finish it, another sequel was produced by a writer about whom nothing is known other than his name, or pseudonym: Avellaneda. Writing a sequel to someone else's work was not unusual, but Avellaneda's stands out for its personal attacks on the author it plagiarises.
Excerpted from Don Quixote's Delusions by Miranda France. Copyright © 2001 by Miranda France. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Miranda France was born in 1966 and was brought up in East Anglia and Sussex. She read Spainsh and Latin American Studies at Edinburgh University, which included a year in Madrid. In the early 1990s she lived in Brazil and Edinburgh and then Buenos Aires, and in 1996 she won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for a piece about her time in Buenos Aires. Her first book, Bad Times in Buenos Aires, was published in 1998. She lives with her husband and young son in London
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