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Four hundred years of a classic.

Byline: Inayat Atta

This year marks the quadricentennial anniversary of one of the most celebrated works of fiction of all time, that is Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes' satirical novel Don Quixote. Its first part was published in 1605, while the second part appeared in 1615. The classic witnessed publication during the 17th-century Spanish Golden Age and is considered a landmark in the Western literature, or its "first modern work," to borrow the words from Michel Foucault. The literary contribution coincided with the works of Cervantes' great contemporary, Shakespeare, both of whom were born in the 16th-century and the tradition has it that both died the same day on 23 April, 1616.

Don Quixote, which in the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, "is the final and greatest utterance of the human mind," has influenced the literary careers of a large number of men of letters ranging from Henry Fielding, Voltaire, Goethe, Stendhal, George Meredith, J. B. Priestley, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Miguel de Unamuno, Graham Greene, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, up to Milan Kundera. It has also been illustrated by best artists like Francis Hayman, Honor Daumier, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Gustave Dor, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Scott Gustafson etc.

Historian Paul Johnson further tells that besides Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Cervantes' masterwork was a decisive influence on the American founding father Thomas Jefferson. Even one of the greatest artists of Urdu prose, Ratan Nath Dar Sarshar, was largely influenced by Don Quixote. His Fasana-i-Azad was inspired by Cervantes' work in which Azad is the protagonist and Khoji his sidekick, bearing a close resemblance to the two main characters of Don Quixote. In due course, Sarshar would translate Don Quixote into Urdu as well.

The literary masterpiece is also a narrative of the Spanish culture of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. On the one hand, it highlights its accomplishments and overall conventions; on the other hand, it casts a deep look into the entrenched class structure of the Spanish society as well as its collective aberrations. In The Order of Things Philosopher Michel Foucault considers Don Quixote to be a pivotal character in the Western fiction as he finds him helpful to comprehend the hypocrisies and tensions ingrained within the society of the time. In his remarkable account The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, historian Fernand Braudel also takes sustenance from the Cervantine magnum opus to explain the socio-historic pattern of the time. When viewed in historical context, the monumental work makes one aware about the thriving slave trade of that particular epoch and the colonial exploitation of labour whose fruits were robbed by the European masters.

The comic epic chronicles the adventures of Don Quixote and his capricious but good-humoured peasant squire Sancho Panza. Obsessed with the idea of reviving the age of chivalry, Don Quixote becomes a daydreamer who comes to believe himself a knight destined to right all the flagrant wrongs. He wears a rusty suit of armour, mounts on his old horse Rocinante, and sets off in search of chivalric feats accompanied by his friend. Both the master and squire undergo wondrous and exciting experiences throughout the story and have numerous adventures, often causing them more harm than good in spite of their noble intentions.

During his travels Don Quixote's overexcited imagination blinds him to reality. Together he and Sancho have a series of absurd adventures including an incident where Don Quixote unsuccessfully attacks windmills believing they are oppressive giants. This episode is the genesis of modern-day proverbial expression "to tilt at windmills," which means fighting an imaginary enemy. Similarly, the word "quixotic," meaning to be idealist to the point of impracticality, also originates from the fictional character of Don Quixote.

They are also the subject of a prank by a pair of duke and duchess when Sancho is made rightful governor of the island of Barataria, which was in fact an artificial island for him to govern. Due to their auditory hallucinations Don Quixote mistakes the bleating of flocks of sheep for the sound of clashing mighty armies. They further come across galley-slaves who were convicted as criminals and Don Quixote comes to their help in line with his determination to right all wrongs and liberating the oppressed. Don Quixote further attacks the barber who was wearing a brass basin on his head to shield himself from rain, but he incorrectly recognises it for the golden helmet of Mambrino, and gets possession of it as soon as it would fall on the ground.

Don Quixote also mistakes a neighboring peasant girl of Toboso to be Dulcinea del Toboso who was a beautiful but imaginary maiden of his fantasy and to whom he had pledged fidelity prior to leaving on his glorious expedition. Though Sancho tells him of the peasant girl to be "sweaty and sort of sour," but the young nobleman chasing after an imaginary beloved translates her name as Dulcinea del Toboso. In chapter thirty-seven, one further encounters a veiled woman mounted upon an ass and dressed in Moorish style with a scarf on her head. It seems to be one of the early examples where a veiled Muslim woman appears in the Western literature.

The work also contains a volume of wit and wisdom which has given birth to numerous popular proverbs, aphorisms and sagacious sayings. Few of the witty pronouncements from the oral wisdom of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza include, "All sorrows are less with bread;" "A tooth is much more to be prized than a diamond;" "Neither good luck nor bad luck will last always;" "Where envy reigns virtue can't exist, and generosity doesn't go with meanness;" "Blood is inherited, but virtue acquired; and virtue has an intrinsic worth, which blood has not."

Cervantes' Don Quixote is both a combination of comedy and tragedy. The protagonist is a gentleman whose mind becomes deranged by reading too many knightly romances. The books of knight-errantry had set Don Quixote besides his senses, so he becomes the incarnation of idealism while his squire Sancho Panza fundamentally remains the embodiment of realism. This danger of confusing idealism with realism is the central issue towards which Cervantes strives to draw attention in his masterwork. The potential for exploring the text's hidden meaning reveals the importance of striking a just balance between the illusionary and the real, and therefore, between the superfluous and the essential. In the end, Don Quixote confesses on his deathbed that his actions have been a form of madness. Though disillusioned and exhausted, he finally regains sanity and renounces the chivalric quest before dying. Through a blend of sheer mirth and comic irony Cervantes defied the conventions of widespread chivalric literature. In addition, he successfully responded to the doctrine of idealism expounded by certain idealist philosophers of the time. Interestingly, he succeeded in doing so much earlier than Voltaire would do the same a century and a half later through his picaresque narrative Candide.

Moreover, the work provides an overall cultural representation of the time as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza crisscross the dry plains of the 16th-century Spain. It also expounds the societal transformation within the context of challenges posed by movements like Renaissance and Enlightenment. Through his protagonist and his parodied romance of chivalry, Cervantes succeeded in giving an expression to the prevalent perceptions of social and individual identity. Though the central character is overly idealistic and hyperbolic, but at the same time he is also the personification of certain virtues like high-mindedness, justice, courage, optimism, tenacity, resolution, and a sense of noblesse oblige - the ideals not only worth reflecting upon but worthy of emulation.

At the end, the reader finds himself indebted to the rich imagination of its great author and his simultaneously amusing and didactic satire. Eminent British scholar of Hispanic literature, Aubrey F. G. Bell, in his excellent study of the Cervantine masterpiece rightly maintained that: "Not less than three times in his or her life should everyone read Don Quixote. It is a book for youth, for the age of the senses and irresponsible laughter; it is a book for middle age, the age of reason and discreet mirth; it is a book for old age, the age of spirit, of the quite smile and the philosophic mind."

The writer is a civil servant and researcher.
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Publication:Frontier Post (Peshawar, Pakistan)
Date:Jul 13, 2015
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