We’re Going to Need a Bigger Cake: Don Quixote Hits the Big 4-0-0

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, by Gustave Doré

Happy 400th birthday, Don Quixote!

Still tilting at windmills after four centuries, the idealistic, adventure-seeking and kind-of-loopy protagonist of Don Quixote is celebrating the big 4-0-0 this year. (Don Quixote is actually two novels in one; it’s the second part that was published 400 years ago. Cervantes published the first ten years earlier. More on that below.)

Author Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American culture at Amherst college, who has written biographies of Octavio Paz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, takes on one of his idols in his new cultural history Quixote: The Novel and the World. We sat down with Stavans to talk about the influence of Don Quixote on the development of the novel, on “Star Wars” and “Mr. Robot,” and on Stavans’ own writing career.

Signature: A lot of your book is about the influence of Don Quixote on authors like Flaubert and Faulkner. What is it that authors have picked up from Cervantes — structure, style, characters, everything?

Ilan Stavans: They have picked up on the overall message of hope and the power of imagination — the fact that the protagonist is a dreamer, maybe a fool, a guy in his fifties who is running out of time and wants to have an impact in the world.

SIG: What was going on in the literary world at the time Cervantes was writing in Spain?

IS: At the beginning of the 17th century, the novel as a form that we know today had not yet taken shape. Cervantes was the first one who saw the novel as a form for adventure and inner exploration of how psychological forces work. The favored forms of writing at the time were the sonnet and theater. The theater was what we would look at as Hollywood today.

SIG: Did people reading Cervantes at that time realize that Don Quixote was a parody of knight-in-shining-armor stories?

IS: They did. They knew that he was making fun of chivalry novels. Many people at that time couldn’t read. A best-seller might have sold 500 copies. The first 1,500 copies of Don Quixote took years to sell out. People fell in love with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from public readings, and the masses started dressing up like them in parades and festivals. People knew what a knight was — supposedly invincible — and Don Quixote was always falling down in battle. The humor was what made Don Quixote a star.

Don Quixote fighting a windmill on his horse, Rocinante.

SIG: You wrote in the book that you have been a Don Quixote obsessive since childhood, and you spoke mostly Spanish growing up. When did you first read it in English?

IS: It wasn’t until maybe my late thirties. I grew up in Mexico and read it first in Spanish.

SIG: You had written quite a few other books before you tackled Don Quixote. What took you so long to come around to it?

IS: You know, for someone who has devoted his life to Hispanic culture, Don Quixote is the big, white whale. It’s the book at the center of that culture, and there has been so much written about it that I felt I needed to mature as a writer and a thinker. The dream of writing this book has been with me for a long time.

SIG: Is the 2002 translation by Edith Grossman considered the leading English translation?

IS: That is considered the most popular translation. It’s the only major translation by a woman, and it has a wonderful, modern sensibility. It has become the standard.

SIG: Cervantes was writing at a time when Spain was religiously and ethnically very multicultural. Is that apparent in Don Quixote?

IS: That is apparent without question. In Spain at the beginning of the 17th century, there had been a retrenchment after a long period of cohabitation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christianity had pushed out the other two in Spain by 1492, but there were a lot of descendents of Jews and Muslims in Spain. Cervantes notes this when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come across the descendant of a Muslim. There’s a chapter about the Inquisition when books are being burned. There’s a subplot of a soldier imprisoned in Algiers, which had happened to Cervantes himself, and interacting with the Islamic population of northern Africa.

Spaniards adore the book, but it’s very critical of the way Spain deals with racism and xenophobia and elitism. It speaks a lot to how the United States is dealing with those issues.

Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615)

SIG: It’s kind of a buddy comedy, right? Is that the best short description of it?

IS: [Laughs.] It’s certainly a buddy comedy. It’s a book about aging. It’s a book about a lunatic. It’s a book about a friendship of two men without any sexual innuendo. It’s a political book, a story of a man who believes he can change the world, everyone tells him he’s crazy, and he doesn’t stop until he changes it.

SIG: You made some contemporary comparisons to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and I laughed when you compared them to R2-D2 and C-3PO, but that’s a really good example. They’re on a journey all through “Star Wars.” There’s the dominant one and the short, fat one. It’s pretty apt.

IS: Also, one does most of the talking and the other reacts. There’s also the language difference. There’s Bert and Ernie, Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, Abbot and Costello.

SIG: And a lot of “Star Wars” was shot around Spain and Tunisia, so the geography is similar.

IS: Yes, and the stories are both peripheral to an empire that’s falling apart. They go to a bar. They go to a castle. There are a lot of similarities.

SIG: Don Quixote is actually two books, which you and most translators have referred to as First Part and Second Part. Cervantes didn’t write them as a single book, but they’ve come to be identified that way. How did that happen?

IS: He wrote First Part, which he likely thought would be the only part in 1604 and published in 1605. He had tried poetry and theater and not gotten very far, and the book became successful. Ten years after the First Part, he completed the Second Part. Today, the 1605 and the 1615 parts are usually published as a single volume. The Second Part is stylistically different. Cervantes is more mature in the Second Part, more fatalistic, more aware of his own ending in life. They are really different books.

Don Quixote - Ilan Stavans

SIG: The book contains some ideas like doppelgangers and metafiction and elements of unreliability that we would consider pretty postmodern today. Have you seen the “Mr. Robot” TV series?

IS: I have, yeah.

SIG: Does that idea in “Mr. Robot” that you’re not quite sure everything is real have roots in Don Quixote?

IS: That comes straight from Cervantes. Don Quixote doesn’t tell you everything you want to know. He’s constantly promising you that everything is true, but then bizarre things start happening. At one point, he tells you that he found the story in a market and that someone is translating from Arabic as he’s writing it. The historian — the “original” author — shows up and offers a very different story of the events. The Second Part interacts with people who have read the First Part. Two characters enter Don Quixote’s library and find a book by Cervantes. There are a lot of games going on in the book that have become popular in television and novels.

SIG: And in the Second Book he challenges some people who had written their own knock-off versions of the First Book.

IS: It’s really funny. Somebody desperate to make a buck wrote his own version of the Second Part. It’s like fan fiction episodes of Harry Potter. That’s exactly what happened with Don Quixote, and Cervantes was furious about it. That’s certainly part of the reason he wrote the Second Part. It raises questions we’re still raising about who owns a work of art.