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.
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.
We meet an honorable veteran named Cervantes, who infuriates his family of harridans by writing instead of pursuing honest work. His latest obsession is a series of popular stories about a crazy Old Knight he heard of from a friend. The knight, we learn, was driven insane by witnessing the carnage of Spain's wars. Released from an asylum after 20 years, he now rides around the countryside, attacking villains, searching for the Holy Grail, and counseling Cervantes, who didn't realize when he started writing that the Old Knight actually exists.
Much of the comedy here is familiar - the willful misinterpretations, the silly confusions, the misguided jousting - but Branston has blunted the melancholy of Cervantes's satire, while maintaining a gently ironic tone. Decorated with kitchen utensils and armed with a black pot, this reimagined Old Knight still looks pretty silly riding his old horse backwards, but he's spared the pathetic absurdity he endures in the original. Years of fighting have left him a resourceful soldier, and his innocence repeatedly shields him from harm.
Besides, the real battle in this new version is literary. The popularity of Cervantes's comic tales has inflamed the ferretlike rage of a handsome poet named Ongora, who's suffering from chronic writer's block. Stoked with envy, this villain is determined to win a place in the emperor's court by destroying Cervantes's literary reputation. But as he pursues his maniacal scheme, he must fend off the crazy Old Knight who keeps denouncing him - with flawless chivalric courtesy - as the Evil Magician of Bad Verse.
This is all great fun, and, what's more, it's surprisingly sweet and intelligent. Branston pulls off some witty slapstick between the Old Knight and Ongora, but he's just as deft with the subtler moves of a debate about the ethics of publishing when "the craze for printing is like a plague."
The village printer finds himself at the center of a battle between competing authors: the decent populist and the venal snob. Cervantes argues that Ongora's attack is "malicious and persuades others of an untruth," but the printer insists that he prints whatever he's paid to publish. He's a disinterested party, not "an adjudicator of quality." Moral neutrality is a quality of the new business reality, he explains.
It's startling to hear this modern argument set at a time when the publishing industry was just beginning, expanding as quickly and disruptively as the Internet is now. Ultimately, Cervantes can't persuade the printer to exercise his critical judgment or take sides, but that doesn't disturb the writer's equilibrium and kindness.
Yes, the Old Knight is far spent, but with his Cervantes, Branston has created an author who never loses sight of others' goodness or his own humility. Even his satire is meant only as "a genial reminder of the folly of all humanity, written with a divine spirit that he could not deny, and it would be foolish to try."
Most of us will get no closer to "Don Quixote" than this witty and deeply humane reimagining, but that's reason enough to hope that chivalry and good books aren't dead after all.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.