Slaying a Giant

Last spring I needed a new book to read over Spring Break. We were heading down to Florida to visit Renee’s folks (and Jack!) and I planned on doing little else but running and relaxing in the sun. I decided to finally get around to reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. It had long been my favorite musical, ever since we saw it in Chicago on our Annual Chicago Weekend with the Roehrigs. I then saw it on Broadway on our high school senior class trip and again in Chicago with Renee, Doug and whoever had a crush on Doug at that time in college. I plowed through unabridged version that week of vacation. It was amazing how much more back-story there is to what happens in the musical. Anyway, I was hooked on the Classics.

I’ve also read other “Classic” literature. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and truly enjoyed them. I decided it was time to exercise my brain a bit and make an intentional effort to plow through some of the most recommend classic novels of all time. Tops on a couple of lists I inspected, as well as a work that is listed as the earliest (or at least one of the foundational) novels written, the Spanish work Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miquel Cervantes. The book is actually two books written ten years apart and close to 1000 pages. Feeling optimistic, I checked out Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov. Should be able to polish those two off in a month before they were due back. Famous last words.

Don Quixote is a comedy. And I laughed along with it. The story follows the character Alonso Quixano, a middle-class landowner in rural Spain, who, due to his obsession with reading the books of knight errantry and chivalry of old, descends into madness and believes that he is actually Don Quixote de la Mancha, a knight errant. He makes up his true love (the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso) to whom he pledges his life and takes for himself a squire, the country bumpkin Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote (DQ) then sets off on a journey where every inn is a castle, every windmill a giant, and every person he meets a new adventure to investigate. Remarkably, the (presumably) sane squire Sancho goes along with everything that happens-partly because he is “not versed in the ways of knight errantry” and partly (mostly?) because DQ has promised him governorship of an isle for his faithfulness. When things do not turn out as they should, or others who recognize their insanity play jokes on them, it is chalked up to “enchanters.” Eventually, the Don and his squire return home, badly beaten and bruised from their adventures, and cared for by DQ’s niece, housekeeper, and the village priest and barber. This ends book one.

Between the 10 years that Cervantes wrote his two books, someone else wrote a sequel to the first Don Quixote story. Cervantes rips into him in his prologue, and makes both the original book and the unauthorized sequel part of the plot in his sequel to the first book. It makes for an interesting device, as the characters who DQ and Sancho meet on their second set of adventures have actually heard about them from the original story (you follow all that?).

So the second half of the story begins with DQ and Sancho recovering and planning their escape from DQ’s niece and housekeeper. After they get out they come upon all sorts of characters who have know who he is from the first book-and that he is a complete lunatic. They do all sorts of practical jokes on him…and this is where the story got kind of slow for me. You see, I’ve always loved to read. When I was 5 I would stay up at night with a flashlight and my mom would have to tell me to go to sleep. This is actually still what happens, except it’s a headlamp and my wife telling me to go to sleep. But around this point in the story, I actually began reading at night to fall asleep. It also led me to be well over a month overdue on returning the book. Reading became work as I attempted to overcome the giant in front of me (hey, if windmills can be giants, so can books).

Finally, however, the story picked back up when DQ and Sancho were taken in by a Duke and Duchess (who were big DQ and Sancho fans) and played all sorts of tricks on them. Sancho becomes (a quite excellent) governor of an isle-though only for a short time-and DQ waits for the disenchantment of his fair Lady, Dulcinea del Toboso. Eventually DQ is bested in a jousting match by a friend from home (though DQ was unaware), on which the conditions where to go home and give up knight errantry for a year. On the way home DQ and Sancho decide they shall become shepherds for the next year and shortly thereafter, the story ends.

This book is a comedy, and the dialog between DQ and Sancho, as well as these two characters and the normal people they come into contact with is extremely humorous. Cervantes also does a good job of character development while introducing several different episodes into the storyline (think of a serialized TV drama-each show is its own story, but the characters develop throughout, even though some plot lines do not reoccur at all after they are introduced and ended). Anyway, it was truly work to finish this book, but one well worth it. I need a break from the classics for a bit, but The Brothers K is next on the list.


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