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November 2, 2003, Sunday
BOOK REVIEW DESK
Tilt By Carlos Fuentes DON QUIXOTE
By Miguel de Cervantes.
Translated by Edith Grossman.
940 pp. New York:
Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.95.
In 2005, Don Quixote will be 400 years old. Most epic heroes are young, from Achilles to El Cid. It was part of the genius of Cervantes to put an old man in the saddle and send him off to relive the heroic tales of the past. But Don Quixote is not alone in his mad quest for chivalry. He is accompanied by his opposite in figure, speech and temperament: the round, earthy, plainspoken Sancho Panza.
I stop right here, as the curtain goes up -+or the pages open -- to celebrate the great new translation of ''Don Quixote'' by Edith Grossman. Nothing harder for the traduttore, if he or she is not to be seen as the traditore, than to render a classic in contemporary idiom yet retain its sense of time and space. Up to now, my favorite ''Quixote'' translation has been that of Tobias Smollett, the 18th-century picaresque novelist, who rendered Cervantes in the style proper to Smollett and his own age. His ''Quixote'' reads much like ''Humphry Clinker,'' and this seems appropriate and, even, delightful. The family relationship is there.
Edith Grossman delivers her ''Quixote'' in plain but plentiful contemporary English. The quality of her translation is evident in the opening line: ''Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.'' This ''Don Quixote'' can be read with the same ease as the latest Philip Roth and with much greater facility than any Hawthorne. Yet there is not a single moment in which, in forthright English, we are not reading a 17th-century novel. This is truly masterly: the contemporaneous and the original co-exist. Not, mind you, the ''old'' and the ''new.'' Grossman sees to it that these facile categories do not creep into her work. To make the classic contemporary: this is the achievement. And through it, Grossman can highlight Don Quixote's flight into heroic rhetoric with great comic effect and meaningful emphasis.
If for many reasons ''Don Quixote'' is the first modern novel, it is pre-eminently because of the different languages spoken in it. Characters in classical literature all spoke the same language. Achilles understands Hector; Ulysses can even speak to Polyphemus. But Quixote and Sancho speak two different idioms. Why? Because the characters are engaged in what the Spanish critic Claudio Guillén calls ''a dialogue of genres.''
There has been some dispute about whether ''Quixote'' is indeed the first modern novel. Ian Watt gives primacy to the 18th-century English novel, which was responding to the rise of a middle-class, book-buying public. André Malraux thought of Madame de Lafayette's ''Princesse de Clèves'' as the first because it initiated inner exploration of character. But I believe that ''Don Quixote'' really inaugurates what we understand modern fiction to be -- a reflection of our presence in the world as problematic beings in an unending history, whose continuity depends on subjecting reality to the imagination. Cervantes does it, as all writers do, in a precise time and space. This is Spain in the decadent reign of Philip III, a country that has conquered and plundered and built a New World in the Americas and returns, exhausted, to its native village in La Mancha with nothing but the memory of past deeds. It is also the Spain of the Counter-Reformation, where the Renaissance enlightenment brought to the court of Charles V by the Erasmist scholars had long been buried under the severe vigilance of the Inquisition and the edicts of the Council of Trent.
Cervantes knew his times. One of his novellas, ''El Celoso Extremeo'' (''The Jealous Old Man From Extremadura''), came under the censorship of the archbishop of Seville because two lovers ended up together in bed. Heeding the church warnings, Cervantes changed the finale. The couple, as in movies from the Hays Office era, sleep in separate beds. Cervantes was a disciple of a daring Spanish Erasmist, Juan Lpez de Hoyos. If ''The Praise of Folly'' and its author are never mentioned in the vast libraries of ''Don Quixote,'' it is for good reason: it was too dangerous. Yet could not ''Don Quixote'' accept as its perfect subtitle ''The Praise of Folly''?
''Don Quixote'' has so many levels of significance that I can set foot on only a couple of them. The first is the dialogue of genres. Cervantes inaugurates the modern novel through the impurity, the mestizaje of all known genres. Often criticized for ignoring the requirements of the well-made novel (recognizable characters, expert plotting, linear narrative), Cervantes audaciously brings into his book, first and foremost, the dialogue between the epic (Don Quixote) and the picaresque (Sancho Panza). But then he introduces the tale within the tale, the Moorish, the pastoral, the Byzantine modes and, of course, the love story. The modern novel is born as both an encounter of genres and a refusal of purity.
Out of this meeting, Cervantes proposes a new way of writing and reading whose starting point is uncertainty. In a world of dogmatic certitude, he introduces a universe where nothing is certain. The place is uncertain: ''Somewhere in La Mancha. . . .'' The authorship is uncertain. Who wrote ''Don Quixote''? One Cervantes, ''more versed in pain than in verse''? A gentleman called de Saavedra, mentioned in the novel with admiration for his love of freedom? (Cervantes's full name was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.) Is the author the Moorish scribe Cide Hamete Benengeli, who discovers, by chance, an anonymous manuscript? Or is it the despicable Avellaneda, who writes an unauthorized sequel to ''Don Quixote'' (in real life, and in the novel)? Or could it be, if we follow this rich, fantastical path opened by Cervantes, that the author of ''Don Quixote'' is really Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote a tale called ''Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote''?
If authorship is uncertain, so are names. ''Don Quixote'' is a veritable onomastic carnival. For beginners, Don Quixote is the heroic name that a minor hidalgo named Alonso Quixano gives himself in order to ride out as a knight errant. But is the name Quixano or Quixada or Quesada? And Quixote himself is dubbed, as he moves through the novel, the Knight of the Sad Face, or the Knight of the Lions, but when he goes into the pastoral mode, he becomes Quixotiz. And when he finally makes it to the castle of the cruel dukes, he is promptly dubbed Don Azote (Mr. Scourge), whereas the disguised Countess Trifaldi calls him Don Jigote, or Mr. Mincemeat Stew.
Whoever enters Don Quixote's sphere changes names, furthering the uncertainty that brands this novel. The nameless horse becomes Rocinante; the magicians who haunt the Don are tongue-twisted beyond recognition by Sancho, whose wife can be Teresa, Juana or Mari Gutiérrez; Don Quixote's adversaries have to assume heroic names in order to be credible. And above all, Dulcinea, the knight's damsel, the epitome of gentility, is in all truth none other than the sweaty peasant girl Aldonza.
Don Quixote wants to live the books he has read, Michel Foucault pointedly observed. This leads the book to an extraordinary inaugural event and to a heartbreaking conclusion. The event is that Don Quixote, in pursuit of the malevolent plagiarist Avellaneda, rides into Barcelona and there visits . . . a printing shop. And what is being printed there? The book that we are reading. ''Don Quixote de la Mancha.'' They know all about us! exclaims Sancho, even the most private conversations. Cervantes and his ingenious squire have just inaugurated, de facto, the era of Gutenberg, the democratic society of readers and writers.
But then, the terrifyingly destructive, not evil but just plain and cruelly destructive, dukes invite the knight and his squire to their castle. And here the sadness of the book is brought to our hearts. For in the castle, Quixote's dreams are offered to him in reality. Where his wonderful imagination could turn an inn into a palace, here the palace is real. Where he could imagine scullery maids as highborn princesses, here the aristocratic women are real. Both real and cruel. Don Quixote is subjected to incessant mockery. Even Sancho, the levelheaded peasant, is lured into the political comedy of becoming governor of a nonexistent island.
The illusion comes crashing down. Books are no longer the grand, imaginative truth that moved Don Quixote through perils without end. So the windmills were not giants. So the armies were only flocks of sheep. So reality is shabby, gray, unarmed. . . . What can Don Quixote do but return home, get into bed, recover his reason and peacefully die? The ''impossible dream'' is over. No wonder that Dostoyevsky, in his diary, calls ''Don Quixote'' ''the saddest book ever written.'' For it is, he adds, ''the story of disillusionment.''
That Edith Grossman has brought all these levels -- and many more -- to contemporary life is a major literary achievement. For to read ''Don Quixote,'' in an increasingly Manichaean world of simplistic Good versus Evil and inquisitorial dogmas, becomes one of the healthiest experiences a modern, democratic citizen can undertake.
Carlos Fuentes is the author, most recently, of a novel, ''Inez,'' and of ''In This I Believe,'' to be published next year.
Published: 11 - 02 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 15 , New York Times Book Review