Don Quixote has been loved and revered for centuries as a masterpiece of literature. Perhaps the original modern novel, it is epic, imaginative and endearing. But just what makes it so? Is it the charm of the lead characters? Is it the call to adventure? The innovative narrative style? Many books can claim ownership of these traits. What sets this book above the others is that it taps into an intrinsic and irresistible human quality, namely: we all enjoy laughing at mental illness. Oh, I know that’s not “politically correct”, but the truth is—and this may sting our modern ego—bygone generations knew a thing or two. The author, Miguel de Cervantes, understood that having a chuckle at someone in a worse mental state than ourselves can be therapeutic— “Ha! That guy is a real loony. Maybe I’m not doing so bad.” And if watching another person become completely unhinged can suspend the ticking of my own emotional time bomb for a few seconds, well that can only be a good thing.
In the Spanish town of La Mancha, an old gentleman fills his days reading books of chivalry. This obsession consumes his mind, until he believes himself to be a knight like the heroes in his stories. Calling himself Don Quixote, he dons a flimsy suit of armour, saddles his withered horse, and sets out for adventure. A peasant named Sancho Panza joins him as his squire, lured by the promise of nobility and wealth. The two are an entertaining pair: the idealistic master, a source of constant trouble for his servant; the proverb-spouting servant, a source of constant irritation for his master. As they travel, Don Quixote sees inns as castles, windmills as giants, marionettes as Moorish hordes, and foes at every turn. His unhealthy imagination, combined with his unwavering bravery, means he is often challenging someone or something, and rarely coming off best. Many have fun at the obviously deluded old man’s expense, but there are also those who try to help him. The knight’s friends and family scheme at any means of returning him to sanity, and eventually manage to bring him home.
It took me four years to work through this novel. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are hilarious together: their victories, their defeats, their camaraderie and their arguments had me spellbound and laughing out loud. I breezed through those sections of the book. But then there were sections where the author went off on tangents, told unnecessary side-stories, and filled pages with wearisome monologues. During those parts I would put the book down and leave it for months. I think Cervantes was promised payment per word when he wrote this one.
Its comedy aside, Don Quixote provides some serious thought. At first, the hero appears a worthy laughingstock, but as the story progresses, his wisdom and goodness begin to outshine his ridiculous deeds. Meanwhile, as sane people play crueller and crueller jokes on the knight and his squire, it reveals not their superiority, but their hollowness of soul. Perhaps being different, or weird, is not so bad as its social stigma would indicate. Attempting something outrageous might bring about more good than would sitting comfortably with the crowd. At least that’s what I told my wife when she asked me why our latest credit card bill included a six hundred dollar charge for trapeze lessons.
Parts of Don Quixote were a chore to read, but worth it to get to know The Knight of Woeful Countenance and his faithful squire, Sancho. 7/10
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