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Iian Stavans. Quixote: The Novel and the World.

Ilan Stavans. Quixote: The Novel and the World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015. 288 pp. ISBN: 978-0-393-08302-6.

In an article in the New York Times on the folly of policing language, Ilan Stavans notes that, with publication of the second volume of Don Quixote four hundred years ago, Cervantes gave the Spanish language its "gravitas." (1) But what does Stavans, a major cultural commentator, mean by "gravitas"? To an Anglo-American reading public the term may suggest such solemn qualities as gravity and sobriety. The Romans, however, regarded gravitas as a virtue that embraced both profundity and humanity. These two qualities, along with the wit and plasticity of Cervantes's language, are elegantly assessed in Stavans's new cultural history: Quixote: The Novel and the World.

Apart from showing readers how and why Don Quixote is the most imitated and translated novel in the world, Stavans explains it as a book that invented both modernity and subjectivity. (2) But is Don Quixote merely a book? The Nigerian author Ben Okri claims that it is less like a book than "a continent." (3) Stavans locates this "continent" in the known world across an impressive spectrum of languages and cultures. Yet he slyly opens the book by informing us of an asteroid discovered in 1982 that was eventually named "Don Quixote." As part of an expanding universe, Cervantes's hero captivated Stavans during his adolescence in Mexico, when he regarded the novel as "untidy, unfocused, and monotonous" (xv). It has since captivated his adulthood, and his book is a moving meditation on this literary captivity.

We all know readers who consider Don Quixote an "untidy" novel. Stavans aims to declutter it through a historical, linguistic, and personal approach. Cervantes's straightforward storyline--from the "birth" of the hero at age fifty to his regrettable return to sanity and death--is punctured by an exhaustive multiplication of subplots and anecdotes. In one of his metafictional moments in part two of Don Quixote, Cervantes himself criticizes his interpolated tales in part one. To remove them, however, would be to violate the novel. Many of us would miss Marcela, who anticipates Rousseau with her revolutionary cry: "I was born free." And all of us would miss the three-chapter "Captive's Tale," based on Cervantes's own five-year captivity in Ottoman Algiers.

Although Stavans's book has been described as a cultural history, it is that and much more: memoir, travel book, chronicle, Comp Lit treatise, linguistics manual, middle-age quest romance. The New World historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto calls Stavans's book a "comprehensive companion." Booklist calls it an "excellent primer." It would surely serve as both primer and companion for anyone who has postponed reading Don Quixote. As his epigraph to The Novel and the World, Stavans uses Mark Twain's 1897 definition of a classic: "A book people praise but don't read." Yet on the very flyleaf of Stavans's book, the illustrator Barry Moser (who made a famous engraving in 2004 of Don Quixote riding Rocinante) confesses to living "with the guilt of not having read Don QuixoteAnd when Alan Furst, a celebrated author of spy fiction, was asked "What books are you embarrassed you haven't read yet?" he answered, "Don Quixote." Although Furst had once toyed with the idea of writing a historical novel about Cervantes's adventurous life, he had put off reading Don Quixote. (4) Stavans may provide Furst and Moser and countless other procrastinators with a "companion" to guide them into and through the equally adventurous life of Cervantes's mad knight.

Stavans's book is divided into two sections: five chapters on "The Novel" precede five chapters on "The World." After examining Cervantes's biography, the first section explores Don Quixote as a labyrinthine narrative with self-reflective qualities. Stavans portrays Don Quixote, like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, as a literary figure with little or no history (75-76). Yet unlike any other novelistic character, he has been adjectivized: he has given rise to the term "quixotic" (78-81), an increasingly frequent term in our political editorials. As for the fictional narrators in Cervantes's novel--the Arab historian or "true author" and the Morisco translator--Stavans rightly regards them as "a joke about the twisted origins of Iberian ancestry (xxiii) and "a slap in the face to the nation's Christian mores" (62).

Those were the mores--the customs and traditions--that led to the Inquisition, parodied in the famous "inquisition" of Don Quixote's library in chapter six of part one. They led to the expulsion of Spain's Jews in 1492 and to the "Purity of Blood" statutes legislated in 1547, the year of Cervantes's birth. The same mores led to the expulsion of the Moriscos from 1609 to 1614, even as Cervantes was writing part two of his novel. These appalling national events may explain why Stavans, in a recent New Yorker article, calls Cervantes "the most anti-Spanish of Spanish writers," claiming that his humor "made the entire country look wretched." (5) This is a variant of Lord Byron's remark that Cervantes "smiled Spain's chivalry away."

Three sections of Stavans's book seem especially timely. A chapter titled "America's Exceptionalism" opens with the fact, new to me, that George Washingon purchased a copy of the Tobias Smollet translation of Don Quixote on the very same day that our Constitution was adopted: 17 September 1787. Stavans reminds us that Don Quixote--also prized by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin--was "the most popular novel in the United States before Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin" (146). Herman Melville treasured Don Quixote, and his Mo by-Dick mimics its hero's "battle against the forces of evil" (149). Tributes by Mark Twain, James Russell Lowell, William Faulkner, and many others, remind us of "the embrace of the quixotic in American life" (160). But American history has preferred that "shining city upon a hill" to the embattled state of mind that is La Mancha.

A second section of Stavans's book that stands out for me addresses issues of translation. Although Stavans uses John Ormsby's fine 1885 English translation of Don Quixote throughout, he devotes some half-dozen pages to comparing translations of the episode of the lions in Don Quixote in chapter seventeen of part two. Allusively titled "Flemish Tapestries," this chapter-- which uses twelve of the almost twenty extant English translations--helps readers see "the gorgeous evolution the English language has undergone over a period of four hundred years." As the dozen translators shift from "lion whelps" to "lion cubs" to "little lions" (193-199), we see what time, culture, and personal quirkiness can do to language. Even in our favorite translations of Don Quixote, each of us will find an unfortunate phrase. Stavans regards Edith Grossman's use of "Senor Knight" as being "too streetwise" for his taste. Having edited Burton Raffel's translation for a Norton Critical Edition, I tried, unsuccessfully, to keep Cervantes's monetary terms from being reduced to American "dollars."

The third and perhaps most challenging section of Stavans's book--at least for purists at the Real Academia Espanola--are his pages on the hybrid tongue of Spanglish. Stavans has wittily remarked elsewhere that he expects his epitaph to be in Spanglish. He is now in the process of completing part two of Don Quixote in this crossbreed language, which he regards as "beautiful" (201). To critics who object to the impurity of Spanglish, Stavans rightly responds that purity is a foolish notion in any culture, and that Cervantes is "the father of impurity." The quest for religious purity--limpieza de sangre-- informed both the rise and fall of imperial Spain.

The issues that Stavans addresses in the sections on Spanglish will define our country in the coming years. The issues both contribute to and expand the narrative of Latino Studies, a history even now being written. Stavans's riveting 2002 Introduction to Cabeza de Vacas Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition aimed to enlighten a history that began a century before the arrival of the Mayflower. Stavans prefaced that Introduction with Walt Whitman's 1883 reminder that "We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents." (6) Stavans's new book on Don Quixote proposes Cervantes as an antecedent for all Americans, not only the fifty million of Hispanic descent.

An "Epilogue" to this extraordinary book ends with a dream Stavans had while completing the manuscript of The Novel and the World. Seated onstage with Cervantes in front of a packed auditorium, he acknowledged becoming his prisoner. This has been a most fruitful captivity.

Diana de Armas Wilson

University of Denver

(1) "The Rolled R's of Vanessa Ruiz," The Opinion Pages, International New York Times, September 16, 2015.

(2) NPR interview. On Point with Tom Ashbrook.


(4) Alan Furst, "By the Book," The New York Times Book Review (June 1, 2014), 9.

(5) "The Downside to Digging up Cervantes," New Yorker, March 19, 2015.

(6) "Introduction," Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition, trans. Fanny Bandolier (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), ix.
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Author:de Armas Wilson, Diana
Publication:Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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