Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Book Review : Don Quixote (Part I)

Quijote lookalike

RATING: ** (two stars, out of a possible five)

Let me start by saying that I really gave it my best shot. I can't think of another book that I've read as closely. Read it in Spanish AND in English. Even - to keep myself honest - tried summarizing as I went, in deathless doggerel ( QUIK QUIXOTE ). I've spent a month of my life with this book - it's been a mild obsession.

Why? Oh, I don't know. Can we ever satisfactorily explain why we choose to give ourselves over to any specific whim? I'm here, in Madrid. I'm studying Spanish at a school that's called "Don Quijote". The time just seemed right. And I had a strong feeling that it was going to be now or never.

But a coherent summary of my reaction eludes me, frankly. This book alternately amused me and bored me to tears. There are a couple of places where I laughed out loud. But mostly I just wanted it to be over. I wasn't about to quit. But it felt awfully like a penance, much of the time.

Some random observations, for which I am forced to resort to the dreaded list of bullet items:

1. The Spanish was often more fun to read than the English. Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries (down to the urban legend (?) of having died on the same day). But Spanish has changed considerably less in the intervening 400 years than English. There were enough archaic words that I did feel reading the translation was a necessary check, but it was surprisingly straightforward in Spanish, and - traduttori, tradittori - one felt closer to the original story. So I definitely enjoyed that aspect of reading the book - it felt like a real confirmation that all the Spanish classes have paid off.

2. I have a good general understanding of the book's place in literary history, and so was willing to cut it some slack - that is to say, not to judge it as one would a modern novel. That said, I still can't avoid saying that I found it enormously clunky. The first couple of hundred pages were annoyingly episodic and formulaic - addled Don meets (a)windmills (b)yokels (c)sheep (d)funeral mourners - take your pick - is confused, through a hilarious misunderstanding (but see point 5 below) attacks them, gets the worst of the dustup, and ends in the ditch.

3. Things improved a little in the second half (of Book I), when some of the protagonists other than Don and Sancho start to appear on a recurring basis. But don't look for in-depth characterization, or much character development to speak of. Cervantes is no Shakespeare.
OK. Let me repeat that for the benefit of each and every one of my Spanish teachers, though I love them dearly. People - you are completely freaking delusional! CERVANTES IS NO SHAKESPEARE. When you make this comparison, you just make me want to resort to actual physical violence. I've read Shakespeare and, dudes, CERVANTES IS NO FREAKING SHAKESPEARE. There's more subtlety, insight, and depth of understanding of human nature in almost any single Shakespeare play (OK, "Titus Andronicus" is a little weird, but there are still over thirty to choose from) than in this entire first volume. Not to mention a superabundance of the most gorgeous language, though - to be fair - I can't quite judge Cervantes on this score.

4. When the plot isn't being all episodic, it's not really any great shakes either. Mick is altogether too heavy-handed with the AMAZING COINCIDENCE method of plot resolution. Man, you wouldn't believe who all happens to mosey on by the same remote Manchegan inn, just in time to tie up a dangling plot thread. I dunno. It all seems more than a little -- lazy.
Though I guess (and I feel like I'm really bending over backwards to give Mick the benefit of the doubt here - why is that - in retroactive justification of the time I invested reading this damned book?) maybe I'm applying modern criteria and expectations here. It's not as if all of Shakespeare's plots were entirely plausible either.

5. Humor. Ah, yes. One of literature's great comic masterpieces. Well, excuse me, if I fail to climb on this particular bandwagon. I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. Let's be quite clear - the humor, such as it is, is almost exclusively slapstick of the broadest kind. If you like watching circus clowns do pratfalls, or if your dream television weekend is a Three Stooges marathon, then maybe you´ll laugh like a drain. But if you don't really find slapstick all that hilarious, or don't take vicarious pleasure in taunting and jeering at a deranged person, you will, as I did, wonder what all the fuss is about. (Yes: I acknowledge that there is some wit in the book's initial premise - a person addled by too much book-reading. But lemme tellya, it gets old awful quick. It really does).
One goodreads reviewer tells us, with no apparent irony, that this is the funniest book he has ever read in his life. A statement that can only be literally true if he is a shut-in with no access to a library.

6. And on the subject of those ratings by other goodreads reviewers. De gustibus non disputandum est (i.e. diff'rent strokes..) and all that good stuff. But really, folks, I'm having a hard time swallowing it. An average rating of 4.69? 102 5-star ratings?
Might it not be possible, just faintly possible, that we have a slight case of what one might call "classic intimidation" going on? The (perhaps unconscious) fear that people may think less of one for not appreciating one of the world's designated literary classics? Did all these apparently rabid Quixote enthusiasts - and how can I put this delicately - ACTUALLY READ THE WHOLE BOOK? All of it, without cheating? All those pastoral poems by the love-besotted shepherds? The entire soporific "Tale of Foolish Curiosity"?
The limited empirical data available suggest that maybe close attention was not paid - a mere 9.9% of respondents chose the correct answer to the goodreads quiz question about the "fulling hammers".
Just sayin'. I has my doubts.

7. Because, here's the thing. Large swaths of this book are intrinsically unreadable. No, I mean it. You read a page. Your eyes glaze over. You try it again. Same phenomenon. Cycle and repeat.
I humbly submit that the stuff in which Cervantes is engaged in direct spoofing of the knight-errant genre - all the stuff about Amadis of Gaul, the Don's argument with the Canon, the priest's adjudication of the various volumes in the Don's library, not to mention the interminable pastoral interludes with lovelorn shepherds and damsels dressed as shepherdesses, could be considered interesting only by the most desperate of graduate students in need of a dissertation topic. For anyone not engaged in abstruse academic investigation it's a freaking snoozefest.

Did I enjoy "Don Quixote, Book I"? Only very sporadically. Do I consider it one of the world's great books? Absolutely not. Will I read Book II? Oddly enough, probably yes.

But not this trip. And probably not this year. Let the Don lie slumbering back home in La Mancha. Myself, I hope to travel to Chile in July, and Argentina in August. I think that other, more appealing, opportunities will arise to extend my knowledge of literature in Spanish.

So there you have it. Sorry. I told you that I probably wouldn't manage an entirely coherent review.


The Bored Reader of Historyonymy said...

Bruce Dawe has a great poem about being bored by 'great art'. I might get to the Don one day, but mebbe not. My own zzzzzz was Machiavelli; certain ideas, usually quoted out of context, not actually that unusual for their time, expressed with all the verve of slug chewing gumnuts.

Anonymous said...

Lent's almost over, you don't have to do penance much longer. Reading it once was more than enough for a lifetime for me. You were stalwart, reward yourself w/ some fabulous plot-laden novel.


Peter said...

I gave up on it. Life's too short and there are too many enjoyable books to read. For example, I am reading "Brothers" by the Chinese writer Yu Hua and it is one of the best books I've ever read. Comic and tragic. Totally unpretentious (a quality that is rare) A must read if you are at all interested in China or in great literature.