This year, I upped my Goodreads Reading Challenge from 50 to 60. As a result, my days have been a whirlwind of reading. I’ve read books 2 and 3 of The 1st Freak House Series by C.J. Archer (I read the first early last year). I consumed Conan and the Sorcerer by Andrew J. Offutt and waded through House of Chains by Steven Erikson. The Malazan books are getting easier to read now that I know more of the characters and their histories.
But the real focus of this month’s reading was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It was a book that both my mother and her mother had read in school. In Spanish. I began reading it in Spanish, as well, but it was slow going. I had no frame of reference for the older Spanish words the way I did with their English equivalents (thou doth protest too much). Not only that, but Don Quixote quotes several languages including Latin. When Latin is cited in English text, it sticks out in high relief. When it’s quoted in a language descended from Latin with a mixture of archaic words thrown in, not so much. I found myself reading Latin in a Spanish accent four or five times before going, wait a minute… and switching modes. This happened one or two times before I threw up my hands and switched over to an English version of the book.
This made the reading faster but not necessarily any easier. See, I am 100% Puerto Rican but mostly of Spanish descent. Reading this book gave me a glimpse into the attitudes and everyday life of my ancestors from the clothing they wore to how they slept (a biphase schedule) and what they ate. And the number one thing that jumped out at me was how HORRIBLE they were. A nation that spawned Conquistadors and the Inquisition wasn’t bound to have the same morals and beliefs that I shared, but it was the breadth and scope of that disdain that horrified me. Here’s a list of people that Cervantes belittled in this book:
- Fat People
- Skinny People
- Mentally Ill People (the whole premise of the book)
- Mentally Disabled People
- Physically Disabled People
- Poor People
- Muslim People
- Black People
And I’m sure I left something out. In one section, Sancho becomes distraught that the elusive “island” he gets to govern turns out to be somewhere in Africa. He is upset at first because his subjects would be black. And then he cheers up when he realizes that all he has to do is sell them. Words cannot begin to express how difficult that was for me to read. Of somewhat minor importance is the flippancy with which the Spanish viewed New World islands– like Puerto Rico– to be given and taken at a whim. But what is MAJORLY distressing to me is how that attitude stretched beyond land TO MY OTHER ANCESTORS. You know how the Spanish kept track of their black slaves in the colonies? They were branded. On the forehead.
*walks away and takes a few deep breaths to regain composure*
Reading this book obliterated the pop culture image I had of Don Quixote waving wildly at windmills while singing lyrics from a musical of the same name. That isn’t to say the novel was entirely without merit. There were bits of slapstick humor that had me literally laughing out loud. I captured some of these moments from the first half of the book on Twitter:
Slapstick aside, there were other benefits to reading Don Quixote. For one, I picked up a few idioms that I’d like to recycle seeing as I already have a habit of speaking Spanish language expressions in English. (“I wouldn’t break a plate” is the hardest one for me to pick out since it’s so close in meaning to “I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”) And I got reintroduced to words long forgotten like chapfallen and fisticuffs.
Most intriguing, however, was the peek into Cervantes’ mind. On several occasions, he used his characters to criticize poets, actors, and fellow writers of his day. The fact that plays were experimenting with time-cuts in switching from scene to scene apparently bothered him. He complained that plays those days had characters that were babies in one act and grown men the next. And if those plays bothered him, modern film and television with their frequent cuts, edits, and commercials would have utterly confounded him.
Cervantes also didn’t think much of some of the commercial fiction being produced in his day. Several times he pines (through his characters) for some sort of gatekeeping system to keep the rabble from being published. Something tells me that fan fiction and self-publishing would have him wretching in a back alley with disgust.
And I won’t lie. That image makes me smile.
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