Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)
Don Quixote – Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Well, I finished it. I took my sweet time but I finished reading Don Quixote. I made my first attempt at Don Quixote in 2008, on the recommendation of someone whose book taste I usually agree with. I think I read most of the Part I before I sheepishly returned his copy and promptly left the country.

Yet since it is such a classic – and tops a few lists as the BEST BOOK EVER! – it’s remained on my To Read list ever since. My secret this time? I read most of the book aloud to Pearl. And I ended up enjoying it much more. Do I think it’s the best book ever. No, I do not. But I do see now why so many people love it and why it has remained so popular, even more than 400 years later.

Don Quixote is a hidalgo (a Spanish nobleman) who loses his mind after reading too many books of chivalry. Convinced that knights errant exist and that he is the greatest knight of all, he sets off on a series of adventures, accompanied by his foolish and chatty squire, Sancho Panza. Some of those adventures – the windmills, for example – are famous and others were unknown for me. Don Quixote is a comic figure and Sancho, who isn’t mad yet goes along with his master’s thoughts and schemes, is an excellent foil for him.

Don Quixote’s friends and family are horrified and frustrated by Don Quixote’s insistence on being a knight and a good portion of Part I involves their attempts to force him to stay or return home. (There’s a long and boring section where they go through Don Quixote’s books and decide which to keep and which to burn and I couldn’t help but think I’d be better off organizing my own house than reading about someone else’s organization.)

Part I also features a lot of other stories and digressions – going into great details of the histories of people that Don Quixote meets along his adventures. A large chunk involves a lot of them at an inn (that Don Quixote, in his madness, is convinced is a castle) and more people keep arriving and finding connections to each other as they share their tales. Some of the stories are interesting but a lot of it reads as Cervantes simply wanting to tell an otherwise unrelated story. It gets tiresome reading about yet another beautiful but tragic maiden and as every young woman Don Quixote meets is apparently unbelievably beautiful, the descriptor starts to lose all meaning. (As an aside, it likely comes as no surprise that the depictions of women here are super sexist and problematic.)

I enjoyed Part II quite a bit more than Part I. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza set off on their latest adventure. They’ve become rather famous now, due to a book being published on their exploits in Part I. They’re known as comic figures and yet remain as oblivious as ever. This allows several people they meet to play tricks and elaborate hoaxes on them – pretendi(ng to hail Don Quixote as a great knight errant and playing along with his belief that he is constantly pursued by enchanters. I found this section to be funnier and more engaging than Part I.

The book is long (almost a thousand pages) but, in the end, I do think it’s worth it. Four hundred years later, it’s still amusing and engaging and a goofy story about a loveable insane man and his loveable and foolish squire.

(The version I read was translated from Spanish by John Rutherford.)

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