Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes


There are two Don Quixote’s.

There is the wise man, dispensing philosophy and wisdom to anyone who will listen; astounding people with his insight when they witness the second Don Quixote, a madman absolutely certain he is a knight errant, pursued by evil enchanters and engaging in combat with giants and beasts.

There’s literally two different Don Quixote’s. The books, I mean. Not just in the two parts, written 10 years apart after Cervantes finally succumbed to fan demand and wrote a sequel, but an actual second one written by a different man — Avellaneda — and ridiculed by Cervantes in part 2 of the official text. Before the modern novel was even truly established, Cervantes was writing postmodern: self-referential work, breaking the fourth wall, a string of narrators deeper than House of Leaves.

And of course, we have the character as he exists in the text, jousting windmills and pining for non-existent maidens and traipsing all over Spain. But also the archetype, the towering figure that spans four hundred years of literary culture. Without reading the novel, you know him, a gaunt figure atop a skinny nag, his plump squire not far behind. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are singular figures, even reading this book in the 21st century when they’ve been parodied and copied and rehashed so many times it’s difficult to even envision a time before them.

I thought the first part of Don Quixote was merely pretty good. The pacing was bizarre and it frequently split off entirely from the titular hero for random characters to tell side-stories about other random characters. Iconic scenes like the windmill-mishap just weren’t quite as striking as I hoped. It was humorous though. After I finished it, I put it on my shelf and forgot about it for several years. Disappointed with what I had been reading recently, and not really knowing what to take on next, I found it on my bookshelf and started part 2 on a whim.

Unlike part 1, the story focused entirely on Don Quixote and Sancho; Cervantes had grown as a writer and had a finer touch on what he wanted those characters to be, likely in part due to the imposter text written by Avellaneda that had turned up in the interim. The latter writer insisted Sancho was a glutton and Cervantes couldn’t stand it! There’s multiple scenes where Sancho explains he’s a hungry man, but not a gluttonous one. The story continues to have a very strange pacing — the characters just sort of bound from one adventure to another without much continuity or focus, they have muddled goals and then their quest just sort of ends, abruptly. But the charm is unmistakable and I found myself deeply sad when Don Quixote comes to his senses, proclaims his madness, and finally croaks.

Scent. Books. Memory.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

You know the way scent interacts with memory? Like you smell something you haven’t smelled in years, say a very specific kind of pie, and instantly you’re reliving Christmas morning when you were eleven, right before you smelled (and ate) that same pie?

Books are like that for me. In the shorter term, I can take a look at the books I read in the past year or two, just flip through random blog pages here, and immediately remember where I was. A bus or a train or plane or a couch. What was happening at the time. Work. Life. There’s deep associations between the life I am living and the book I am reading. Scent plays a factor too. I purposely bought a box set of Lord of the Rings hardcovers years ago because they’re identical to the copies I read when I was a kid; the smell of the pages is a thrilling sensory memory of the excitement I felt when I first laid eyes upon middle earth.

I find myself musing because I am reading the second part of Don Quixote. According to goodreads, I read the first part in September of 2011. It’s been sitting on my shelf — actually on three or four different shelves to match my changing apartments — with the bookmark dead center since. I picked it up when I found myself completely unable to decide what to read next.

And the memory sense kicked in big time. The heft of the book, the jagged-edge pages, the feats of the peerless knight errant himself. It connects me to a self that feels removed. A separate coast, an enormously different life. Life changes of course, but it can be difficult to quantify. The sense and memory shift that can be achieved with something so simple as opening a book helps me grasp that fact.