Miguel de Cervantes may have been born in the book-loving town of Alcalá de Henares close to Madrid but the creator of Don Quixote, that deluded hidalgo who tilted at windmills, did not have the opportunity to study in its hallowed University halls. His father, a blood-letting ‘surgeon’ who pulled teeth to make ends meet, could not afford to send him to school with the naughty young nobility of his day (although Cervantes would later depict those society figures in his pastoral novels).
Cervantes spent his infancy in his grandfather’s home on the Calle Mayor, where he slept in a small room with his sisters, his mother, his grandmother, a cousin and an aunt.
That two-storey house is now a charming museum that recreates the daily life of a well-off family of the 16th and 17th centuries, with some elements particular to Cervantes’ family, such as a tooth-extraction chair and spit plate like the ones his father would have used. But the polished restoration belies the economic hardship that haunted Cervantes after the family left Alcalá – and likely gave birth to memorable Quixote adventures.
When Cervantes was four, his father left Alcalá de Henares to earn a better living, and the family wandered from town to town for 15 years. They travelled on dusty dirt roads on a mule-pulled cart presumably not much better than Quixote’s scrawny, yet beloved steed Rocinante, and often slept in “uncomfortable inns of ill repute,” as a museum plaque puts it, like the one in which sidekick Sancho Panza was cruelly tossed in a blanket.
Like his chivalrous hero, Cervantes sought to improve his fortune through acts of bravery and joined the Spanish infantry. He fought against the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, and was taken prisoner by Algerian pirates. He was jailed for five years while his family scraped together the ransom money for his release with the help of Trinitarian nuns, an experience hinted at in Quixote’s “captive’s tale.”
The museum on the Calle Mayor contains an extensive collection of Quixote editions, including one copy from 1605, the year the first part was first published to popular acclaim, and another illustrated by Salvador Dalí. The often-slapstick tale, with its embedded narratives, societal critiques and comic characters, is considered the world’s first modern novel.
On returning home I did as I promised and bought a copy of ‘Don Quixote’. I found it on Amazon for the bargain price of £1.99, I ordered it together with a book on the history of Spain and it arrived three days later.
I opened the package and then I remembered why I didn’t finish it at the last attempt. The book has nearly eight hundred pages and I estimate about four hundred and forty thousand words long and it has that tiny squashed up typeface that makes a book sometimes difficult to read.
So, just in case I start it and abandon it again I have decided to carry out some research and do some preparation to try and understand exactly why this is such a good book and why I should enjoy reading it.
According to one reviewer Don Quixote is “so conspicuous and void of difficulty that children may handle him, youths may read him, men may understand him and old men may celebrate him”. I hope that I am at that “men may understand him” part of life whereas previously I was only at the “youths may read him” stage and that this might make a difference. I think it will also help that I have now visited La Mancha and have some small understanding of the place and the people and this will explain the book when I begin to read it.
The novel begins 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 shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing…
…His fantasy filled with everything he had read in his books, enchantments as well as combats, battles, challenges, wounds, courtings, loves, torments, and other impossible foolishness, and he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read that for him no history in the world was truer.”
I have read that first page a couple of times but have not yet felt completely ready to carry on so perhaps I will keep it for a holiday read? I am determined to do it soon and I will let you know how I get on but for now I have got to finish my Bill Bryson book, which isn’t quite such an important work in the history of World literature but has the advantage of being very easy to read.