I don’t tend to read a lot of fiction, but when I do, I try to engage in it. I find it helpful and illuminating, when approaching a literary work created in a culture and time frame quite different than mine, to try to suspend my own cultural assumptions in favor of something closer to the context of the author. For example, when I read Dante’s Divine Comedy in translation two years ago, I did so, as best I could, from the perspective of my persona in the Society for Creative Anachronism. That persona is an early fifteenth-century Italian artist. Assuming as a basis a belief in a rather mechanistic and rule-bound concept of Purgatory enabled me to see how Dante was challenging that concept in a way that was completely opaque to a classroom full of 20th-century American agnostics.
This fall I enrolled in a course in Don Quixote, taught in Spanish, at the University of Oregon. I enrolled because I had recently taken a volunteer position that required the person to be bilingual in English and Spanish, and had done so with reluctance, because I have not used Spanish in almost forty years. No one better qualified was willing to take the job. This specialized upper division course was the only one still open to a senior auditor, and the professor was willing to have me. Thus I found myself reading one of the great classics of world literature, in the original language, and trying to discuss it and write essays on it with marginal language skills and no background in Spanish literature. It was not too difficult to shed my cultural assumptions because none of them were of much use in approaching the task at hand.
Don Quixote is not easy to read if one takes it at face value, as primarily a satire on novels of chivalry, with a certain amount of social commentary thrown in. I had tried to read it in translation on several occasions, but had gotten bogged down in a series of improbable romances and the relentless ugly violence. Friends who are mindful readers have had the same experience. The basic plot line – a decaying, impoverished, deranged nobleman who imagines himself a knight errant getting into trouble and making a fool of himself, and incidentally connecting with star-crossed lovers whose troubles are typically resolved – does not require eight hundred pages to develop fully. One gets the feeling that Cervantes, like Dickens, was writing a serial and was paid by the word.
For the most part people today read Don Quixote because they are told that it is a classic, the first modern novel in any European language. Reading it becomes an obligation of being a well-rounded student of the humanities, and this cultural assumption stands in the way of engaging with the text. In contrast, people not only in Spain but in Europe in general in the seventeenth century found this text gripping. It was immensely popular and immediate. Could I access something of that immediacy?
Something about the text reminded me of the absurdist science fiction novels of the Russian dissident writer Andrei Siniavsky, who wrote under the pen name Abram Tertz. I had the good fortune both to read these in Russian and to meet the author himself, and to compare the complex multifaceted originals with bad translations packaged for American consumption, with a propagandist agenda. Siniavsky, who was a respected literary scholar, smuggled the originals out of Russia and had them published, in Russian, using the name of a historical Jewish gangster as an alias.
Cervantes, like Siniavsky, lived in a society where publications were rigorously censored, and where direct criticism of church or state invited the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. He did not use a pen name, but, part way into the book, he claims that it is a translation from Cide Hamete, an Arab historian, an assertion as absurdist as Siniavsky’s ascribing his science fiction to a gangster who died in 1926. One recurring trope is an insistence that Cide Hamete is an extremely accurate historian, followed by a wealth of seemingly irrelevant detail about something which does not in itself seem essential to the plot.
Once I started reading these details as a subtext conveying dissident views and criticism of the status quo, the novel became much more compelling and immediate. I have probably overcompensated, but I am confident that Cervantes deliberately inserted much of the pattern I am seeing into the text, and that some of his readers recognized this.
I live in the United States, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, surrounded by a print and electronic culture that is ostensibly free of censorship. The censorship is, to be sure, far more subtle than that in either the Soviet Union or sixteenth-century Spain, but it is quite real, and the consequences of stepping over the bounds include job loss, loss of credibility in academic circles, and sometimes the threat of lawsuits. For example, if I, as an academically trained biologist, wished to publish research supporting a model of biological change that included intelligent design, I would do well to distance the statement from my academic persona, using a pseudonym and locating the research lab in a distant galaxy.
Judging from some of the very thoughtful and thought-provoking genre fiction that is appearing in the United States today, this is already occurring.
Cervantes (19th-century engraving). Public domain.