In his Prologue to the first part of Don Quixote, Cervantes claims his book is both the “child” of his understanding as well as the “offspring” of his efforts, and yet he also says, “…though I seem to be father, I am the stepfather of Don Quixote.” The distinctness of Cervantes’s step-fatherly role becomes readily apparent as we progress through the text and continue to grow into a deeper state of vexation by the book’s bewildering labyrinth of authors.
According to the narrative, Cervantes is actually placed at considerable distance from the text itself. The legendary Alonso Quixada (or perhaps Quexada or Quijano), who dubs himself the famous knight errant, Don Quixote, is apparently an already well-known tale debated by various authors. There are records found in the “Annals of La Mancha,” records which the anonymous author (whom we might presume to be Cervantes) attempts to cobble together of his own accord. Consider the following passage from Chapter VIII of Part I during which Don Quixote’s sword is drawn, ready to engage in battle against a brave Basque:
“But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted. It is certainly true that the second author of this work did not want to believe that so curious a history would be subjected to the laws of oblivion, or that the great minds of La Mancha possessed so little interest that they did not have in their archives or writing tables a few pages that dealt with this famous knight…” (65).
Here the story has been unceremoniously interrupted. It briefly becomes a historiography until the second author takes over the narrative in Part II of Book I (Chapter IX). This second author claims to have searched high and low for the conclusion of Don Quixote’s battle with the Basque before eventually discovering a book in a marketplace in Toledo entitled “History of Don Quixote of La Mancha.” However this new book is written by an Arab historian named Cide Hamete Benengeli (whose presence obscures the authorship of the text even further). Several times, the second author notes the “luck” or “fortune” he had while randomly piecing together this text as a mosaic of different narratives, or a work of many hands. Shortly thereafter, we learn that over the course of a month and a half, a Morisco has been hired to translate the text from Arabic into Spanish (a Morisco is a former Muslim forced to convert to Christianity under penalty of expulsion or death). This Morisco translator becomes the most important author of the subsequent text as he offers brief insights, as well as omissions, from Don Quixote’s story –each of which significantly stamps our understanding of the novel. Despite the fact that the “second author” proclaims lying is a common trait among the Arabs, he nevertheless notes that this particular Morisco translator has chosen brevity against overstatement, and thus there is a certain degree of untruth inherent in the narrative, but such is true of all literary writing to an extent. The Morisco’s authorial discretion is crucial to the verisimilitude of Don Quixote.
There are several points in the text during which the Morisco translator explicitly and unsurprisingly praises the Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli (Chapter XV) and even admits to bearing eyewitness testimony to Sancho Panza regularly. This translator serves as an alternative source of “historical” verification, either confirming or denying the writings of Cide Hamete Benengeli. Volume I concludes with an admission that this narrative has been, in fact, pieced together from works sitting in the Manchega Archives, leaving open the question of the true authorship once again. However Volume II (published ten years later in 1615) is also revealed to be the work of Cide Hamete Benengeli, later referred to as a “Mohammaden Philosopher” (who Thomas Pangle suggests could be an Averroist or perhaps is at least a Christian in name only). Needless to say, it is immensely difficult to get to the bottom of things in Don Quixote.
Between the publication of the two volumes of Don Quixote, the Spanish Inquisition had taken root. It was an age of burning books and torturing heretics in pursuit of a purified society. Thus the need for Cervantes to further disguise his authorship under a veil of secrecy was never stronger. Especially when considering Don Quixote to be a satire which addresses, among many things, the dangers inherent in religious fanaticism.
What is to become of a silly, anachronistic, delusional old man like our famous hidalgo? The novel rather dangerously places the reader inside the detached perspective of a philosopher. Our outlook is modern –our view cynical, our laughter intoxicating. We gleefully watch as a delusional old man must convince himself of the truth of sacred scriptures. Whereas many theologians are convinced the world is interrupted by particular suspensions of the natural order (i.e. miracles) Don Quixote instead views the ordinary world around him as enchanted and ennobled, rather than interrupted. In this sense, he is at least partly a classical figure –courageous, imaginative, and heroic. His project is a unique blend of ancient and modern values, from ancient heroism to modern existentialism. Don Quixote remains an incompetent troublemaker, a man in whom we rarely place our trust, but nevertheless continue to hold a certain indulgent infatuation with while eagerly awaiting more ridiculous escapades. The end of the book sadly concludes in disillusionment and the death of a zealot –his immoderation proves to be his own demise and our joy turns to sorrow. In the words of Thomas Pangle:
“Don Quixote is a noble, intelligent, highly imaginative and articulate but fanatically moralistic and pious gentleman who has become inebriated to the point of insanity by the idea of devoting his life to the imperial religious heroism and chaste love he ﬁnds commanded by sacred Scripture tinctured by classical moral philosophy. In other words, the ﬁgure and the deeds and the animating beliefs of Don Quixote represent a grotesquely caricatured, and thus appropriately veiled, portrait of the fanaticism to which militant “modern” religion can lead.”
And all of this comes down to us through several layers of ambiguity collected from historical annals, scraps and fragments, eyewitness testimony, Arabic histories, translators, and compilers. Whereas books like the Bible make vain attempts to bridge the gulf between colorful literature and bland reality, Don Quixote makes it painfully apparent that logos is always framed and colored by an author’s aesthetic whims, thus posing challenges to people who propound the inerrant sacredness in written stories.
For this reading I used Edith Grossman’s brilliant translation of Don Quixote as well as Thomas Pangle’s enlightening essay “Preliminary Observations on the Theologico-Political Dimension of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.”