Don Quixote and Me

I’d like to imagine Spain as it was years ago. Or maybe as it was in Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’s immortal novel?

A Spain filled with windmills and blowing dust, raggedy Sanchos, feet dragging on the dry ground, atop emaciated mules straggling behind crazed knights bedecked with tin hats and rusty lances.

Cervantes’s Don Quixote is one book I have tried to read over the years. I get only so far, then give up.

Once again, I’m trying to focus long enough to read this masterpiece all the way through,  thanks to a fresh, modern translation by Edith Grossman. The Kindle version is much easier to hold, all 940 pages of it, but I do love the paperback edition’s deckled edges, the heft of the book in my hands. But it’s not comfortable holding the massive thing for very long.

Sancho Panza

For me, Spain encompasses vast distances that conjure up memories of Texas. Horizons going on and on forever, with little respite, other than small villages crowned with ruined castillos and pigs running amok. Chickens and goats, too. The occasional windmill, once or twice, just like the ones Don Quixote tilted his lance against.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Spain’s role in the Age of Exploration.

My first trip through Extremadura confirmed something for me in regard to all that. As I have said elsewhere, many of the men who followed Columbus left Spain because there was nothing to keep them tied to the dusty, unproductive earth. Their social standing, too, would never guarantee success, however they chose to define it. Some made good marriages—read “money”—but others fell by the wayside in a rigid society where bloodlines determined futures.

When a person has nothing to lose, he or she often seeks a different path. Certainly around the end of the fifteenth century no path would diverge from the norm as much as leaving the dry Spanish earth behind and sailing to the New World.

La Mancha, however, presented a slightly different visage from Extremadura. A bit more life. An invitation to venture further east, maybe south.

Typical vineyard in Castilla La Mancha, Spain at winter

But consider the time period when Cervantes wrote this massive two-part novel—between 1605, when Juan de la Cuesta published the first half, and 1615, with the final installment. Why are those dates so important?

The novel appeared in final form over 123 years after the Catholic Monarchs sent Columbus on his merry way and the world changed forever. Journeys, voyages, quests, and dreaming of other worlds, other lives seemed to be the norm in the Spanish worldview of the time.

Life, ripped like frayed silk, inspired the writer, who saw the split between past and future all around him.

Cervantes began his book with, “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shelf on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometime squab as a treat on Sundays—these consumed three-fourths of his income.”*

That beginning always grabs me. It sums up life in much of Spain at the time. And this time I hope I can stay the course. And complete my quest, to finish reading Don Quixote!

Or to at least understand something more about Life.

Still Life with Figs and Bread, by Luis Egidio Meléndez

*Obviously Don Quixote is a cut above the dust-encrusted peasant, who meager meals probably started and stopped with lentils.