It took me a month to finish both parts of Don Quixote. Seeing how I am now in the midst of weight loss (21 pounds down so far) I decided part way through to tackle this nearly 1000 page novel through the means of my first audiobook. That way I could go on long walks and still power through the crazy world of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.
For the uninitiated the plot of Don Quixote is remarkably simple. A well to do Castillian man loses his sanity after reading too many books on the history of chivalry and decides to become a knight errant by the name of Don Quixote (it would be like someone believing they are a superhero after consuming too many comic books). In this state he mortgages his estate and goes on a series of adventures with local farmer Sancho Panza acting as his squire (who, for whatever reason) believes that this will earn him the governorship of an island.
Many literary historians label Don Quixote as one of the earliest example of the modern novel. The fact that it engages in a glut of meta-fiction in the second part is somewhat amazing considering that this is well over 400 years old. By glut I mean there are actual chapters in the early sections of part two where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss the in world novel of Don Quixote (some of this, rather interestingly, is related to consistencies in the first part that was published a decade earlier).
As much as this is a seed from which modern novels have grown from it still does not feel quite there yet. In essence, Don Quixote is more a collection of short stories (or adventures as Cervantes called it) that are connected by a framing narrative and the same characters.
There is a general decline in the fantastical nature of these adventures as the novel progresses too. In the beginning Don Quixote attacks windmills when he sees them as giants and envisages all inns as castles, but by the end of it he is being tricked by those who know of him and seek a quick laugh.
In a similar way, the novel also becomes less and less funny and, at the same time, becomes more and more self aware. It’s a weird balancing act that Cervantes chose to walk. I just feel that some editing could have made this book so much editor as the writer, much like his characters, has the tendency to ramble on a bit.
It’s actually quite hard to talk specifics about the ‘plot’ of Don Quixote because of its slightly disjointed nature. One thing I can say, however, is that a lot of the characters are jerks. I know that Don Quixote is mentally ill, but he is an absolute arse towards Sancho. I mean I understand that in his knight errant persona he is devoted to the (fictional) Dulcinea… but on very little evidence at all he just will not stop hassling Sancho to whip himself 3,300 times in order to reverse her enchantment (long story). Sancho does not want to whip himself, so Don Quixote’s first instinct is to threaten Sancho until he does it.
Sancho is no angel himself though. He is clearly the funny character, and made me chuckle on a number of occasions, but it is sometimes easy to read him as someone just taking advantage of Don Quixote to make a few hundred escudos out of him.
Obviously the biggest jerks are the Duke and Duchess from the second third of the second part. I’ll leave that there… but they are just the worst.
As a history lesson and as a lesson in which animals possess foresight and chastity (ants and elephants respectively) this has been an enlightening read. I would really recommend this as an audiobook as there are times where you can go pages without a paragraph break. Still, an interesting insight into literary history.