People don’t make the sign of the cuckold at each other as often as they used to. Let’s be clear about this: before the Industrial Revolution, finding out that your neighbour’s wife had been unfaithful, and dancing around behind him with your fingers stuck up either side of your head was, in sports terms, pretty much up there with Premier League football. Humiliation was big. They had village idiots, for goodness’ sake.
In Don Quixote, people regularly go out of their way to attempt to taunt an elderly man who’s gone soft in the head. At first, much of it is his own fault, but by the second part, people are deliberately using him for sport. There is a passage that goes on for about 150 pages, in which a duke and duchess set up ever more elaborate schemes to make him look like a fool. I kept thinking, am I missing something? At one point, in the first part, he is suspended for several hours, clearly in agony, from a window with his wrists tied to the inside door by a length of rope, so that his feet can barely touch the ground.
Stop now, my sides may split.
To be fair, we still find humiliation funny – just look at all the reality shows – we’re just a bit more covert about it. Also, I recounted the Don-Quixote-suspended-by-rope episode to a friend, and he started laughing.
And it is a clever novel. It would be a good trivia question: ‘Who wrote the story of Don Quixote?’ To which the answer is Cide Hamete Benengeli. Cervantes claims to have found the manuscript and to be recounting what the original author has written. Early in the second book, Don Quixote is made aware that his adventures, written by CHB, have become very popular, and meets people who know him through this account, despite the fact that the whole thing is being written by Cervantes, whose own book was the one that was popular. While he was writing the second part, an interloper wrote a counterfeit follow-up. So Cervantes has Don Quixote see this version at an inn and a printer’s, and dismiss it roundly both times (as well as referring to it in a clause of his will). DQ and Sancho Panza even meet someone from the counterfeit novel, who appears to suggest that there is another DQ and SP walking round, but not as funny as them. So here, at the start of the 17th Century, is the postmodern novel to beat all others.
There is a genuine pathos in someone with golden age ideals being treated like a punch bag by rich and poor alike. Probably the saddest moment is towards the end when he recovers his sanity, and appears to renounce the character that has made him so interesting: wise, brave, mad, foolish. Becoming just another one of the crowd.
The novel’s success over 400 years is yet more proof to me that, in the end, it is character that makes people keep coming back.
I’m going through a phase of making myself complete the books that I start. To be honest, I found Don Quixote a hard slog. The humour jarred and too much of the story was episodic. I tried to think of a modern parallel in which an old man dressed in full Game of Thrones garb goes to Sainsbury’s and declares his love for the girl behind the meat counter on her mobile phone. While the rest of the staff devise every more fanciful ways to taunt him. But the truth is, if you want a good medieval fantasy humiliation novel, DQ is still the best.
I read Tom Lathrop’s translation which, having tried others, I’d recommend.