The men of La Mancha
In this clever reimagining, Cervantes and Don Quixote team up to slay bad writers
How much more time do you need? This year marks the 400th anniversary of "Don Quixote," and you still haven't read it. Harold Bloom is shaking his hoary head: "Where shall wisdom be found, indeed!" And don't even bother trying to hum "The Impossible Dream." A few diverting hours with "Man of La Mancha" are no substitute for working through 1,000 pages of the world's first novel.Skip to next paragraph
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But nagging guilt is a poor motivator for reading (or you'd have finished Ron Chernow's "Hamilton" by now). So here's something to tempt you toward this intimidating classic of Spanish literature: a debut novel called "Tilting At Windmills" that reimagines Miguel Cervantes and Don Quixote as friends in a beguiling blend of biography and fiction.
The author is Julian Branston, whose vague and exotic life story would fit comfortably in, say, a picaresque comic romance. He was born on a sugar plantation in South America. He's lived in Taiwan. His publicist told me he has a wife and children, but then wrote back to say that he doesn't. He divides his time between England and California. Pressed for details, his agent reports that he's something of "a man of mystery." In light of his wonderful first novel about the errant Knight, this is all too good to be true, like finding out that J.K. Rowling is a witch.
"Tilting At Windmills" opens with a beyond-the-grave blessing from Cervantes, giving Branston permission to write "a companion to the original, both in spirit and humor." Branston is a "flawed pupil," Cervantes admits, but he "has the same wildness, uncertainty, and manifest despairs that once afflicted my soul." And as he reminds us, producing an authorized sequel was a major concern as his own life drew to a close in the early 17th century.
Advances in technology and rising literacy rates ignited a revolutionary demand for stories during this period. Returning from military adventures with a mangled hand, Cervantes supported his family by writing comedies for the theater. In the last decade of his life, he produced a parody of chivalric tales called "Don Quixote" about a man who had been driven mad by reading chivalric tales.
It was an immediate bestseller, which spawned a host of knockoffs and a raucous publishing battle. (Disney lawyers would have us forget that most of the world's great literature was written without the benefit of intellectual property rights.) To defend his creation, just before he died, Cervantes wrote a sequel that included more adventures, along with flourishes of self-referential gamesmanship about himself, his book, and the act of publishing that could challenge any modern-day poststructuralist.
Branston's new "companion" volume borrows liberally from the details of Cervantes's life and works, but he blends them in a way that's wholly original and delightful. He pares the sprawling scope of "Don Quixote" into something significantly less demanding and - excuse this heresy - more enjoyable.