By Graham Salter
On Tuesday the fifth of April, Professor Edwin Williamson gave a fascinating talk on Cervantes, creator of the chivalric hero Don Quixote, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. The bucolic setting for this event was the Linbury Building which looks out onto the lake at the far side of Worcester College.
Cervantes’ own life was neither chivalresque nor bucolic. His father was continually on the run from creditors, and young Miguel had no chance of a University education. Instead, he joined the army, and took part in the momentous sea battle of Lepanto, where the Christian forces of Don John of Austria defeated the Turk, and Cervantes’ left hand was blown away in the process. Sailing back to Spain, his ship was boarded by pirates, who took Miguel to Algiers as a slave. His letter of commendation (from Don John himself) merely served to increase his value to the slave-traffickers, and his family were incapable of paying the 600 ducat ransom that was placed on Cervantes’ head. As we listened to this tormented life-story, we could have been forgiven for thinking it was an early version of Candide.
On returning, at last, to Spain, Cervantes, whose grasp of stocktaking was distinctly shaky, got a job in 1587 requisitioning grain and olive oil for the Spanish Armada. Though full of patriotic zeal, he seems to have got into a muddle over his accounts, and was prosecuted for embezzlement. In his next job, as a tax-collector, exactly the same thing happened, and the year 1594 found him languishing in prison, pondering his next career move, and fortunately for humanity, deciding to become a writer.
Professor Williamson then focused on the Quixote, highlighting the key aspects which make it such a fascinating novel.
Quixote suffers from two delusions. His primary delusion, the consequence of reading too many chivalric romances, is to think that Fiction and Reality are one and the same; and so the harsh, real world becomes a perplexing mystery to him. His secondary delusion, however, is to believe that he, Quixote, has a glorious role to play in his imagined world of chivalric romance.
The characterisation becomes particularly subtle when his valet Sancho grasps the fact that his own employment depends upon his master’s delusion; and so Sancho colludes in Quixote’s madness, and exploits it. We are already seeing the ambiguous motivation typical of a character in a modern novel.
When Cervantes writes Part Two of Don Quixote, ten years after Part One, his characters are asked : “Do you realise that there’s a book all about your adventures?” But then Cervantes warns us that the writer of this book, a non-Spaniard, is “an unreliable narrator”. It is this glorious interplay of narrative illusion and artifice that has led critics to hail Don Quixote as the inspiration for all that follows in modern fiction.
Edwin Williamson has recently been awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to write about Don Quixote and how Cervantes came to write it. My only regret, as this talk came to an end, was that Professor Williamson’s book is not yet completed. When published, it promises to be a fascinating work.
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