De Armas, Frederick A. Don Quixote among the Saracens: A Clash of Civilizations and Literary Genres.
In Don Quixote among the Saracens, Frederick A. de Armas is interested in matters of genre, a topic that he explores from an impressive variety of perspectives. In the novel under scrutiny, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is, at the very least, co-protagonist of the critical venture, for it is through the lens of the creator that the processes--literary, socio-historical, political, and analytical--move forward. At heart a playwright, Cervantes recognizes that conflict lies at the heart of writing and of life, and, even as his narrative becomes increasingly metafictional and self-referential, the real world is never absent. Allegory, satire, critique, and introspection mark the trajectory of Don Quixote, which may be called a representation of the clash of cultures and of books. De Armas's latest contribution to the corpus of criticism on Cervantes is, in every sense, a learned study, informed by years of research, reading, and investigation of the arts and their shifting and seemingly limitless frames. In examining early modern Spain, de Armas recognizes the Islamic inflection within the national character, based on centuries of contact and interaction. Little seems more crucial to the equations formulated by the society--and, correspondingly, to the literary production--of this time than the issue of identity, in its multiple combinations, permutations, and doublings. The movement of the study, as well as its referents, can be located around phenomena that result from blending and from a failure to blend, that is, from syntheses and disjunctions. The novel itself, meaning Don Quixote and developing directions in narrative, simultaneously draws from, plays with, and defies tradition.
De Armas proposes that Cervantes began with a general conception of the parameters of his undertaking and that the knight's quest would take him, among other places, into the territory of genre. Every section seems to have a game plan with a particular system of interlocking elements. The Sierra Morena, for example, would become a respite, a site of mystery, and a place where story lines could connect and be woven together, or "threaded." The complexity of the process allows de Armas to bring together the strands of the plot and their implications, and to introduce and correlate the visual arts, aesthetics, history, theology, philosophy, onomastics, numerology, and medicine. The thesis that Don Quixote is structured on series of quaternities, on the levels of macrocosm and microcosm, is one of many well-argued, encompassing, and ingenious arguments that relate to the knight, to the text into which he is inscribed, and to authorial figures real and implied. Cervantes would appear to follow the Pythagorean view that everything is in a state of flux, as he constantly changes--and has Don Quixote change--paths. This is not, as it were, the path of least resistance, given that each new decision provides a conduit, and a need, for greater complexity of signifier and signified. Almost nothing exists in isolation; rather, the text depends on interrelations and, with some regularity, on unusual or unexpected bedfellows, such as politics and the pastoral genre. Even the easily accessible and the apparently obvious can hide allusions that range from the distant world of classical antiquity to the immediacy of the trials of the Spanish nation, more often than not commingled. In the chapter titled "Magic of the Defeated," de Armas analyzes Don Quixote's words and actions from a Christian stance, and this permits him to indicate how difference, alterity, and hybridity factor into the narrative and ideological schemes of the novel. The errant knight is a composite of pagan, medieval, epic, chivalric, and historical heroes (and perhaps antiheroes), and the Muslim influence is a mediating principle. At several points, de Armas sees Don Quixote as a stand-in for Charles V, "consumed by illness but steeling himself onward, hoping for a miracle" (93), but he is, as evoked in context, the ailing emperor as portrayed by Titian. Details coincide and collide. The intensity and virtuosity of composition run deep, yet so does improvisation, which gives the elegant and polished performance an air of incompleteness, or, one might submit, of calculated incompleteness.
De Armas looks at the form of the last section of Part 1 of Don Quixote in terms of detective fiction, which has its origins in the distant past. An ancient Persian tale, byzantine romance, Voltaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle serve to illustrate Cervantes's juxtaposition of mystery, characterization, monomania, the monstrous, and the tapestry effect. De Armas labels the clustered stories of Don Quixote "labyrinthine" (112), stemming from Italian and Spanish tradition but, con perdon, going baroque. He notes the irony of the protagonist's move from fugitive from justice to sleuth, yet Don Quixote's detective work--filled with questions, many of which remain unresolved--is interlaced with a high drama of religion, race, politics, and selfawareness. The text and the anachronistic knight are mutable, pleasant, and frequently hard to read. The arrival at the inn of the captive and his brother the judge present further adventures in storytelling and additional "wavers in genre" (129), summoning classical and contemporary myths, together with historical reality. A key paradox does not escape de Armas: in the midst of narration by others, Don Quixote loses his voice, to a degree, and he is redeemed only by the discourse of chivalry, which is his target language.
In a crucial moment in I:26, Don Quixote associates himself with the Saracen king Agramante of Boiardo's Orlando innamorato. De Armas interrogates the confusing summoning of the Muslim enemy and concludes that a significant truth is revealed to the attentive reader: "The Christian knight is at home with the Saracens" (158). The manner in which de Armas substantiates the hypothesis and justifies the uniting of helmets, balsams, battles, and angst is skillful and illuminating. A reference to the Pillars of Hercules in the Agramante episode demonstrates closure and opening. The narrative of empire must cede to the individual, although "the Other is within the self" (161), and the story must reappropriate its linearity and end with a return home, but, as always, with a twist. The twist here, with the complicity of the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, is the magic of the enchanted chariot that is perceived by the uninitiated as a cage. Don Quixote is the enlightened protagonist, the tricksters are themselves tricked (or deluded in their complacency), and the ride home has a triumphant side. Linking Cide Hamete's motives and cosmography, de Armas maintains that Don Quixote's melancholy is guided by Saturn, the planet that grants wisdom through pain and travails. The knight's journey has taken him beyond the normal borders, into the plus ultra of Charles V's emblem. Don Quixote is joined by a team of writers and narrators, and by critics who delve into the profound regions of interpretation.
Two related adjectives might be applied to the study: exhaustive and exhausting. Both are complimentary. De Armas's knowledge is encyclopedic, and his readings are penetrating and engaging. This is a work of considerable reflection, research, and breadth. It belies its relatively compact size; it "feels" double the length. Don Quixote and the Saracens is a tour de force of comparative approaches. Its brilliance is not diminished by the fact that readers will establish their own--and possibly contradictory--strategies through which to comment on the novel, on genre, on ties with Muslim sensibility, and so forth. De Armas inspires me--to cite but one instance--to reevaluate the role of Cide Hamete Benengeli, since the historian is a far more tangible presence in his reading than in mine. The richness of the book, which covers only the 1605 Quixote, is indisputable. Fittingly, de Armas, emulating Cervantes and the Velazquez of Las meninas, inserts himself into the art object. Whether it is Cervantes's mind or his own that ultimately projects the correspondences and correlations, de Armas will likely leave his readers with strong responses, admiration, and curiosity as to when a study of Part 2 can be expected.
EDWARD H. FRIEDMAN
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|Author:||Friedman, Edward H.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2013|
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