15 December, 2005Issue 5.1EssaysEuropeFictionLiterature

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Cervantes’s Stepchild Turns 400

Tyler Fisher

Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quijote de la Mancha
400th Anniversary Edition

‘Although I seem to be the father, I am really the stepfather of Don Quixote,’ Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra declares in his prologue to Part One of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, first published in 1605. On the 400th anniversary of this illustrious stepchild, Spain has convulsed with Quixote-inspired festivals, dramas, ballets, sculpture exhibitions, commemorative coins, action figures, academic conferences, new editions of the masterwork (some with cartoon compendia, some with critical commentary), and even new public footpaths which follow the imaginary itinerary of the dreaming Don.

Surely Cervantes, even in his most quixotic flights of imagination, could not have foreseen this saturnalia of acclaim. Yet he did foresee, with penetrating clarity, the variety of readers and readings his stepchild would encounter. His self-effacing joke about literary paternity in the prologue allows him to introduce at once the device of multiple fictive authors and his awareness of multiple readers – the dual substructure of the novel’s true ingenio.

Since his book is not a direct offspring, Cervantes continues, he will make no pleas for readers’ sympathy: his readers can freely and fearlessly revile or praise the work. In the centuries since, readers’ reactions have spanned the range Cervantes invites. Harold Bloom, among others, has called Don Quijote the first modern novel. Oxford’s own Edwin Williamson considers it ‘the half-way house of fiction,’ the turning point between the medieval romance and the modern novel. Others, while recognizing the book’s innovations, have not been so favourable in their remarks. For Vladimir Nabokov, Don Quijote is a ‘cruel and crude old book,’ a ‘meat pie’ of various genres. Yet, for all the liberty Cervantes expressly grants his readers, he does not leave them without guidelines for how to approach and apprehend his work. Anticipating Nabokov, ‘meat pie’ is one characterization he rules out.

By the time he published Don Quijote, Cervantes was at work on a collection of twelve novellas, his Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary novels), printed in 1613. In the prologue to this collection, he rejects the ‘meat pie’ metaphor: ‘Gracious reader, with these novels I offer you, you can by no means make pepitoria’ – that is, a poultry stew of giblets and gizzards. Rather than a meat pie or chicken fricassee, rather than critical decoction by those who would dismember his work for its moral content (or lack thereof), Cervantes suggests that his fiction should be treated like a billiard table, a mesa de trucos.

Like the novella form itself, adapted from Boccaccio and Bandello, billiards was a pastime recently imported from Italy. The Novelas ejemplares, Cervantes declares, are ‘a billiard table in the public square’ – not a team sport, but a harmless activity which more than one participant can enjoy. The figure embodies a recognition of the simultaneously subjective and communal nature of reading and interpretation, and is particularly fitting as an illustration of reading habits in Cervantes’s Spain, where such practices normally included reading aloud to an audience of friends, family members, or co-workers, literate and illiterate alike. And the billiards metaphor fits Cervantes’s expectations of varied responses from his readers. Readers can approach the figurative balls from different angles, the prologue suggests, ‘without risk of obstacles or miscues.’

How does Cervantes’s fiction reflect such a conception? A passage from one novella, Rinconete y Cortadillo, offers a promising specimen for an opening break shot.

The story concerns two young rogues, Rinconete and Cortadillo, and their encounter with the gang of the thief lord Monipodio in Seville. Much of the narrative relates a string of episodic visits by various associates of the gang to Monipodio’s headquarters, while the two boys, as initiates, look on. One such visitor is the prostitute Cariharta, or Moon-Face, who enters shrieking and battered, crying for justice to be done to her pimp Repolido who has beaten her. While the assembled company tries to console her, the abusive pimp arrives at the door, hot on her trail, and Cariharta shouts:

‘Don’t open the door to him, Se√±or Monipodio. Don’t open the door to that mariner of Tarpeia, that tiger of Oca√±a.’

Rinconete and Cortadillo quietly observe from the sidelines as the scene plays out and the unhappy pair are eventually reconciled. At the novella’s close, Rinconete thinks back to Cariharta’s language with a hearty laugh. She had the words all wrong, he thinks. She named the Spanish town of Oca√±a when meaning to say ‘tiger of Hyrcania’ (cf. Macbeth III.iv.101: ‘The armed rhinocerous, or th’Hyrcan tiger’, after Virgil’s Aeneid); she had jumbled the opening line of a famous ballad (‘Mira Nero de Tarpeya’ [Nero watches from Tarpeia]) and had called her pursuer ‘mariner of Tarpeia.’

But are Cariharta’s words really the malapropisms Rinconete considers them? The metaliterary features of Cervantes’s fiction have become commonplaces of literary criticism. In Don Quijote, characters read and are read; the literate and illiterate debate the merits of books, including the book of which they are a part. In the case of Rinconete, the eponymous rogue offers one ‘reading’ of the prostitute’s language, but the authorial voice does not intrude to confirm or discredit such an interpretation. Readers can laugh along with Rinconete or they can approach the cue ball from other angles.

For instance, Spanish readers in Cervantes’s day might well have thought of their own Tarpeia, the Roca de Tarpeya in Toledo. This roca was a high cliff from which, according to local legend, the inhabitants of Toledo under Roman rule cast their condemned prisoners to the River Tagus, borrowing a custom from the Roman capital. In Rome, prisoners condemned for treason to the state were thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, a precipice of the Capitoline Hill. With this in mind, Cariharta’s invective can be seen, not as a slip of the tongue, but as a clever way of calling Repolido a damnable criminal who should be ‘swimming with the fishes’ of the Tagus.

The Tarpeian Rock of the Capitoline Hill, in turn, was named for a Roman governor’s traitorous daughter who opened the city gate to the besieging Sabines. According to the fable, Tarpeia agreed to open the gate on the condition that the Sabines give her what they wore on their left arms, for she hoped to collect their precious rings and bracelets. As the Sabines streamed through the open gate, they administered their own justice on the traitor by giving her what they wore on their left arms – their heavy brass shields. Tarpeia was crushed under a pile of shields, and the place of her execution bears her name. Cariharta’s tongue-lashing, then, can be read as doubly appropriate to the situation, as she pleads for Monipodio not to open the door to the attacker.

Just as the allusion to Tarpeia signals a cultural-geographical transposition from the Italian peninsula, rendering Hyrcania as Oca√±a likewise represents a borrowing from the ancient world. The Spanish Renaissance registered a particular anxiety to match or surpass the achievements of classical antiquity. Thus, we see Cariharta’s transposition of Virgil’s Hyrcania, the wild region of the Caspian Sea, place of tigers in the ancient imagination, to Oca√±a, a town in the province of Toledo – appropriating a Latin allusion with domesticating wordplay.

Clearly there are more possible approaches than Rinconete’s smug and one-dimensional reading. Cervantes imagined an array of different readers and left ample room for them to take up his playful invitation.

For those who haven’t yet taken a few angle shots with Cervantes’s stepchild, the 400th anniversary of Don Quijote offers a good excuse to make that opening break shot.

Tyler Fisher is a Lecturer in Spanish at Exeter College, Oxford. He is currently finishing his DPhil in European Literature with a focus on the poetry of Spain’s counterreformation.