By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate
WHO IS CERVANTES?
Miguel de Cervantes is Spain’s most famous and influential author, the creator of Don Quixote, a book often cited as the first modern novel.
WHEN AND WHERE DID HE LIVE?
Cervantes was born in 1547 in central Spain. His father, Rodrigo, was an itinerant tradesman, a dreamer who dragged his family from Alcala to Madrid and across the arid plains of La Mancha, landing more than once in debtors’ prison.
AND HIS MOTHER?
Leonor was a powerful woman who worked tirelessly to put food on the table. She became the model for all the strong and determined women who populate her son’s novels.
WHAT KIND OF BOY WAS MIGUEL?
Like his father, he was a dreamer — but also a smart and devoted student who was permitted to attend good Jesuit schools.
THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PROMISING START.
Yes, but after a few happy years his school days ended abruptly when a warrant was issued for his arrest. He had wounded a fellow student in an illegal duel. If convicted, his punishment would be a stay in prison and the loss of his right hand. To escape prosecution, Miguel fled to Rome.
HOW DID HE EXONERATE HIMSELF?
A young man could clear his name through distinguished military service. At age 24, Miguel joined the Spanish navy —the famed Armada — and saw immediate action fighting the “heathen Turk” at the epic sea battle of Lepanto.
Spain won a decisive victory, but Cervantes was badly wounded and lost the use of his left arm. Now a war hero, he was given a medal and sent back to Spain.
SO HE WAS SAFE?
Well, no. On the trip home he was captured by Barbary pirates and spent the next five years as a slave in Algiers, awaiting ransom.
HE MUST HAVE BEEN IN DESPAIR.
His captivity was the central trauma of his life. Slaves who were thought likely to be ransomed were kept (barely) alive and spared the unrelenting horror of the unfortunates doomed to row in the ships’ galleys till they died at the oar.
Cervantes lived in filthy and degrading quarters, shackled in leg irons, and was frequently beaten and whipped and forced to watch the torture and execution of his companions in misery.
Part of him, however, stood mentally aside and observed his own agony with ironic detachment. Later, he would revisit his nightmare years in stories, plays, and poems, always fictionalized and seen through the eyes of different observers.
He invented a trick of being simultaneously “within and without” his characters and situations, a technique that would blossom brilliantly in Don Quixote.
But all that was in the future. Eventually his family scraped together the money for his ransom and Miguel came home, not to a hero’s welcome, but to the stony indifference which often greets returned soldiers. He was 33 years old, broken and broke.
HOW DID HE EARN MONEY?
He tried to make a living as a writer — in those days a nearly impossible task. For the next thirty years he penned poems, plays, and pastoral romances — all unsuccessful.
To survive, he found work as a purchasing agent for the Armada, then as a tax collector. But when he was accused of applying his talent for fiction to the account books, he landed in the Crown Jail.
OKAY, ENOUGH HARD-LUCK STORIES! WHEN DID HE WRITE DON QUIXOTE?
He started it right there — in jail. No distractions, plenty of time to think. What more could a writer want?
EARLIER YOU SAID DON QUIXOTE WAS THE FIRST NOVEL. REALLY?
Well, the first modern novel. Before Quixote, there were plenty of fanciful prose narratives, many of them stories of the long-dead Age of Chivalry featuring impossibly virtuous damsels and superhero knights battling armies, monsters, and demons. These tales were the comic books of their day — manufactured genre fiction with little resemblance to the real world.
Cervantes’s hero is an old man (of La Mancha) who has read so many of these books that his mind has cracked. He comes to believe that he is a modern knight-errant, chosen by God to sally forth and right all the wrongs of the world.
IT SOUNDS RIDICULOUS.
Initially it is. At first Cervantes invites the reader to laugh at the ludicrous old man venturing into the very unromantic countryside of La Mancha, mounted on a broken-down nag.
But then the Don chooses a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, to be his “squire.” And in the course of their calamitous adventures Sancho becomes the Mad Knight’s protector, admirer, and loving friend.
Through their conversations, we become privy to their thoughts, and they become truly “round” characters, with inner lives that go beyond the necessities of the plot. We argue with them; we take sides; we experience the book as both reader and participant.
Cervantes, like his contemporary Shakespeare, found a way to move beyond clichéd heroes and villains and create psychologically complex, conflicted characters — and that’s what makes Don Quixote the first modern novel.
WAS THE BOOK POPULAR?
“Popular” would be an understatement. Published in January of 1605, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha was an immediate success — as immediate as anything could be in those days when information, including books, had to be delivered by hand.
By February, crates of copies were on their way to the New World, where they sold briskly
As European dignitaries gathered in Spain’s capital to celebrate the birth of the king’s son, they were presented with special gift copies. At the nightly festivities, “Don Quixotes” and “Sancho Panzas” thronged the costume balls.
Public readings were held in taverns and town squares so that the illiterate masses could enjoy the miraculous book that captured the laughter and sorrow of Spain, the book that was later called “the Spanish Bible.”
Before long, Don Quixote had been translated into French, German, English and Italian. Over the four centuries that separate its author’s life from ours, Don Quixote became the world’s most published work of literature and Cervantes the most widely-read author of all time.
A hack writer quickly jumped on the bandwagon with an unauthorized sequel, spurring Cervantes to write his own Part Two. In it the characters are aware of the rogue sequel and throw considerable shade on it.
SO — NOW CERVANTES WAS RICH?
Don Quixote made fortunes — for the publishers and booksellers. The idea of copyright was far in the future, and Cervantes had to make do with his one-time sale to the first publisher. Somehow he kept writing and laughing and surviving hand-to-mouth until an admiring nobleman awarded him a small pension. In 1616, one year after the publication of Don Quixote Part Two, Miguel de Cervantes died of diabetes. He was 68.
Cervantes published several other fine books. But it is for Don Quixote—which critic Harold Bloom has called “the first and greatest novel”—that he will be forever loved and remembered.