Don Quijote de la Mancha--originally published in two parts (1605 and 1610)--tells the story of Alonso Quijano, an elderly country gentleman whose "brain dries up" after reading too many "romances de caballería", or chivalric romance novels, a common popular genre in 16th- and 17th-century Spain. The protagonist of these stories, always a gallant knight-errant, engages in mortal combat, stoically suffers inhuman privations, and defends the honor and safety of the helpless, all in the name of his lady love. Miguel de Cervantes's parodic version of these stories is a comical look at how these stories were seen in the Spain of his day, as well as an insightful and sometimes quite acerbic look at 17th-century Spanish society and culture.
After his brain dries out, Quijano, donning his "finest" knightly apparel and adopting a portly peasant, Sancho Panzo, as his squire, dubs himself Don Quijote de la Mancha and embarks on a series of misadventures that still entertain readers today. As Don Quijote, Quijano's mission is to right wrongs and help the helpless, although it seems that the person who is in most need of help is Quijote himself, who is constantly getting himself into situations that usually end badly. The most famous episode is, of course, the joust with the windmills, whom Don Quijote perceives to be giants and which he attacks, only to be knocked to the ground. However, if you only reach this first of his adventures as a knight errant, you are missing out on an untold number of literary gems. Take, for example, the extremely comical "blanketing", a moment of soft abuse where Sancho is repeatedly tossed up and down on a blanket by ruffians; or the poignant and powerful scene where Don Quijote acquires the name "El Caballero de la Triste Figura": The Knight of the Sad Countenance. Your best effort is worth the time you spend as you attempt to understand this classic novel in all its depth and breadth.
A word to those who are embarking on the first venture into 17th century Spanish prose: digression, digression, digression. As the novel was a relatively new genre when Cervantes first wrote Don Quijote, many of the stylistic preferences of today's fiction--clarity and a streamlined plot, for example--were not in vogue in 1605. In the novel, we find copious digressions that appear in the form of literary and philosophical dialogue, interwoven mini-novels, or stories related orally by the different characters Don Quijote encounters in his quest, perhaps at a meal or on the roadside. Be prepared for said digressions and enjoy them as they were meant to be enjoyed: for both entertainment and instruction. This last word is key to understanding the the Quijote as the novel was written, as a rule, to both entertain and enlighten the reader through exemplary conduct or sermons on proper behavior. While some might find this didactic presence a turn-off, if you try to read it from the perspective of a 17th-century Spaniard, you can appreciate what the author was trying to do, even though you may not agree with his conclusions.
As Miguel de Cervantes's novel celebrates its 405th year of worldwide success, I would encourage all serious readers to consider giving this novel a try. Even after 400 years, the humor is fresh and the insight into the human experience is still compelling, time after time.
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