Confessions of Cervantes

1 don quijote picasso

I’m reading one of my favourite books, Don Quixote. This time I noticed that I hadn’t paid any attention to the author’s life on earlier readings, and that that life bears more than a slight, though somewhat rueful, resemblance to the hero’s of the book.

When the tax agent Miguel de Cervantes was incarcerated in a dim, damp and rat infested prison somewhere in La Mancha on suspicion of fraud in 1597, aged 50, he wasn’t too downcast: he thought of an idea for a play, then of a story, and began to write Don Quixote. It would have been an even better idea had he started on his autobiography, as did Marco Polo in 1296 as a prisoner in Genoa. For Cervantes had as fascinating a life as did Marco Polo. Perhaps he did draw on his life.

The autobiography would have been about a tall, lean individual, wide shouldered and somewhat belligerent, but slow moving, with scarce hair, piercing grey eyes and a long lantern jaw. A man conscious of his noble ancestry and exquisitely sensitive to any slur upon it, but all too aware how poverty had lain he and his family low. His father Rodrigo was an impoverished barber surgeon with a large family (both jobs involved skills with a razor and it was usual then for them to be combined).

Man from La Mancha

About 29 September in 1547 Cervantes was born in a town near Madrid, but spent his boyhood and youth travelling around the country with his parents and siblings as his father went in search of employment. His education must have been an interrupted one, but supplemented by wide and voracious reading of all kinds of material. The drama especially aroused his enthusiasm, and one has only to think of how it affected the young Shakespeare in England 10 years later to hear of England’s glorious past depicted by a group of travelling players at Stratford, to realise the stimulus to Cervantes’ imagination a similar experience would have been.

2 La Mancha

Cervantes might have spent considerable time marooned in small towns in the La Mancha plateau, where at times all there was to see was more plains, dry and desiccated, stretching to the horizon, and somewhat backward, conservative people. The windmills were slow, creaking boards attached to roughly built stone structures, used to convert the dry dusty wind into grinding power when the wheat was harvested. The contrast between life in the towns of La Mancha and the exploits of El Cid (who might have been Cervantes’ role model and youthful idol) must have been excruciating.

At the age of 21 Cervantes quarrelled and fought a duel with someone supercilious enough to sneer at his ancestry. Or perhaps at his poetry, which in fact was extremely undistinguished. Cervantes never in his life saw any reason to avoid danger, and was besides quite a good swordsman. The two are not always a good combination, but in this instance it led to the death of his opponent. Honour had been satisfied, and Cervantes had gained much prestige for his bravery. But the men who admired him most were required to arrest him. Discretion was the better part of valour, he thought, and fled to Italy, ending up in Rome. Here he found honourable employment, but unfortunately he also gained a lot of creditors who knew where to find him. They didn’t understand he intended to pay all his debts, that all he needed was one successful play.

Soldier of fortune

In 1570 Cervantes, in need of regular pay and escape from creditors in Rome,  joined the Spanish Naval Marines in Naples, and found himself taking part in the great battle of Lepanto at Naupaktos (the Turks called it Lepanto) in 1571 under the general command of Don John of Austria. Cervantes liked to think it one of the decisive battles in history, but the Turks were not inconvenienced for long. They ceased to expand into the Mediterranean, but consolidated their hold in western Asia.

3 Capture of Blackbeard

Naval battles were not that different to land battles then, the ships navigating to collide while discharging cannon and pistol shot, then the soldiers or marines engaging in hand to hand combat. The rowers were of course massacred by their oar butts as the two sets of oars tangled, but they were only slaves. Cervantes was ill with fever when the battle commenced and excused duty, but insisted on taking part. During a broadside he was hit by bullets twice in the chest, and sustained major damage to his left arm and hand, but remained on his feet and would not withdraw from combat. After the battle he was convalescent for several months, and returned to duty with his left arm and hand incapacitated. He never regained its use. The left hand had died for the greater glory of the right, he joked. He told the story of the battle vividly in the Captive’s tale in Part One of Don Quixote.

As was to happen frequently, Cervantes’ gallantry under attack attracted the esteem of others. In the case of the battle of Lepanto, Don John of Austria, the fleet commander. Unfortunately as it happened, because he was sent back to Spain with dispatches for the King in 1575. The ship he was sailing in was attacked by Algerian corsairs, captured, and a ransom demanded for all the captured survivors. As Cervantes was carrying letters to the King, the corsairs understandably thought him a great nobleman and doubled his ransom.

Cervantes spent his five years as a captive in trying repeatedly to escape. What was more, he organised his fellow captives to form a party and all worked to the same end, but they were foiled every time. Meanwhile his impoverished family tried to scrape some money together for his ransom. His captor was at last persuaded to lower his demand, and the money was eventually paid, and Cervantes finally made it home to Spain and Madrid in 1580. He has left a thrilling account of his adventures in Chapters 39 and 40 of Don Quixote, near the end of Part One: the Captive’s tale is one of the most memorable accounts in the whole book.

4 Honoré Daumier Don Quixote

The good right hand

Poverty was still the enemy for Cervantes, and he spent the next 20 years trying to avoid it, with not much success. He was involved in the preparations of the Great Armada which was to crush the power of Elizabeth Queen of England, and became a provisioning agent for the fleet. Provisioning was to be one of the many problems that inconvenienced the Armada, but Cervantes’ accounts were scrupulously kept. Later, in 1585, he worked as a tax agent, collecting taxes in money and kind from a reluctant population and conveying them to the government coffers. As corruption and deceit was rife in this area on the part of both the taxed and the taxers, it is no wonder that eventually Cervantes fell under suspicion and spent some time in jail in La Mancha while discrepancies in his accounts were investigated in 1597. There he began to write, sardonically, the story of a tattered and unfortunate hidalgo such as was he himself whom he called Don Quixote, aged 50 as he was, with a craze for tales of chivalry, as he had for the drama. What use is a sense of humour if one cannot laugh at oneself? He incorporated a shrewdly observed portrait of all the varieties of people and place in rural Spain he saw as a tax gatherer, and made them immortal.

The book was finally published in 1605 and was immediately popular all over Spain and in other countries as well. It was something new, novel, for no one had written with such realism of Spain before. Cervantes was finally famous, and his publishers rich as well. Cervantes was able to settle down to the literary life he had always wanted, unfortunately making no money at it. In a leisurely fashion he produced more indifferent poetry, a pastoral, republished some of his plays to outstanding critical disdain, and finally, a book of short stories in 1613 which contains some of his best work (The Exemplary Novels). At no time did he realise what his achievement in creating Don Quixote was, and grossly undervalued it (as Shakespeare did his plays). He was quixotic about his literary achievement, which he saw as in the time honoured genres of the drama and the pastoral. An impertinent rival author had produced the Part Two of Don Quixote that Cervantes had promised but never written, along with an insulting preface scorning the poverty and obscurity of the original author. The gibes seemed to have had a good effect. Cervantes settled down and finally produced his Part Two of Don Quixote in 1615.

This is one of the first true novels, incomparably the best, and somehow contains all later developments in the form, including stream of consciousness, magic realism and post structuralism. At the start of Part Two Cervantes is absurdly trying to balance the story of the Don with the tale translated from the Arabic of Cid Hamet ben Engeli, the imperfections introduced by a fraudulent sequel by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda of Tordesillas and his own discrepancies made in Part One. Already he has discovered that the medium is the message. Don Quixote really is the only novel one needs to read, a tale about a knight of chivalry we obsessively read, to laugh at his obsession with tales of knights of chivalry, and wonder who is the madder, ourselves or the Don.

5 don quixote poster

The following year, having unexpectedly rivalled the achievement of his contemporary William Shakespeare, still with his withered left arm, still miserably poor, and most likely still envying the success of authors such as Lope de Vega as dramatists, Cervantes died in obscurity on 22 April. Everybody read his book Don Quixote, but nobody noticed whom the author was, until it was translated into English in 1612 and 1620 by Robert Shelton (the first translation). Tobias Smollett published his version in 1755, based on an earlier translation. The work influenced his own later work, and Cervantes became one of the most influential authors on subsequent English fiction. But few could match his story of a poor man whose reason was addled by reading too many chivalric romances and whose adventures then formed a profound and wise meditation on all our lives.


Shelton’s version I haven’t read, but Smollett’s of 1755 is very good. I also enjoy Ormsby’s of 1885, and Cohen’s of 1950, given to me by an aunt for my 16th birthday. However there are many more available, such as Putnam’s of 1949, and Starkie’s of 1957. Raffel (1996), Rutherford (2000), Grossman (2003), Lathrop (2005) and Montgomery (2006) have all published translations recently. I’m now reading Grossman’s.

Translators vie in trying to reproduce Cervantes’ style. I, not knowing any Spanish at all, think it a hopeless task. Obviously, a mere ‘version’ is not acceptable, but who can translate something as personal as style so anyone else could recognise it? It is very much a matter of the actual words the author uses. I understand that Spanish is a formal language, and that the Spanish including Cervantes subvert it to obtain a humorous effect. Also that Cervantes contrasts the high flown oratory of the Don with an everyday colloquial Spanish of the 16th century. The task is, how to avoid this conceit from becoming monotonous? Only Cervantes fully succeeds. I read in Hemingway (who might be an expert for all I know to the contrary) that Spanish is a subtle language, conveying much by implication, as in the insult Hemingway tells of, “Thy mother…” (mocking use of the intimate personal pronoun “your old mum was a whore and all her children bastards; but in your case she must have fucked a donkey”). But how do you translate something that’s not there? And nobody is going to pick up the book, or put it down, because they find “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” should be “by the time the eggs are cooked”. Most anything can be ignored that doesn’t drive home the fact that the book has described your failings and vulnerabilities, your absurd hopes and fears, the pretensions and dreams that never came true for you, and somehow, that those failings, vulnerabilities, hopes, fears, pretensions and dreams are somehow important, that the world couldn’t do without them. All said with ineffable humour and courage. One should learn Spanish, or if you understand English, you can collect the English translations that come out every two or three years.

It happens apparently all too casually. The reader mocks Don Quixote all through Part One as everyone he meets does. Then by Part Two the reader has become the Don, and the mockery hurts. Just look back to when you were younger, and more innocent, for a taste of it. Despite the social station due to him he never attained, despite the hit play he longed for and never achieved (and how he longed for it) and despite his withered left arm, Cervantes achieved more than most other writers get close to. And made it seem as easy as tilting at windmills.

It’s very much like the achievement of Genji Monogatori, the character of both authors appear on every page of their books, two of the greatest self portraits ever written, with Murasaki the one we fall in love with, while Miguel de Cervantes becomes the good companion we have always missed having. Cervantes never read Murasaki, but did he know Rabelais, whose books on Gargantua and Pantagruel were being published in France when he was growing up? Rabelais’ books were another great self portrait, the story of the author’s dissatisfaction with life as a churchman; his exploration of a new world of learning and discovery, and a brilliant mockery of once believed certainties. The European world changed radically at the start of the seventeenth century and that’s why these books have remained modern, while everything before has had to be interpreted.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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