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The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha : by Miguel de Cervantes; translated by Tobias Smollett, with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25, hardcover; $10.95, paperback; 986 pp.)

March 09, 1986| Jack Miles

The Translator's aim, in this undertaking, was to maintain that ludicrous solemnity and self-importance by which the inimitable Cervantes has distinguished the character of Don Quixote, without raising him to the insipid rank of a dry philosopher, or debasing him to the melancholy circumstances and unentertaining caprice of an ordinary madman; and to preserve the native humor of Sancho Panza, from degenerating into mere proverbial phlegm, or affected buffoonery.

He has endeavored to retain the spirit and ideas, without servilely adhering to the literal expression, of the original; from which, however, he has not so far deviated, as to destroy that formality of idiom, so peculiar to the Spaniards, and so essential to the character of the work.

The satire and propriety of many allusions, which had been lost in the change of customs and lapse of time, will be restored in explanatory notes; and the whole conducted with that care and circumspection, which ought to be exerted by every author, who, in attempting to improve upon a task already performed, subjects himself to the most invidious comparison.

Whatever may be the fate of the performance, he cannot charge himself with carelessness or precipitation; for it was begun, and the greatest part of it actually finished, four years ago; and he has been for some time employed in revising and correcting it for the press.

--From the preface by Tobias Smollett

In the stunning introduction to this new edition of "The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha," Carlos Fuentes recalls the moment when Sancho Panza reports to Don Quixote that someone has written a book about them. " 'They mention me,' Sancho says in fright, 'along with our lady Dulcinea del Toboso, and many other things that happened to us alone, so that I crossed myself in fright trying to imagine how the historian who wrote them came to know them.' " This first book within the book is just a beginning: Sancho and Don Quixote will learn of an apocryphal "Don Quixote" written to cash in on the popularity of the "real" one. Moreover, Fuentes says, the Knight of the Rueful Countenance does "what Achilles, Aeneas or Sir Lancelot could never do: he visits a printing shop, he enters the very place where his adventures become an object, a legible product."

This device--this fusion of the record of an event with the invention of the event--may seem all too familiar in 1986, but it was literally epoch-making in 1605, Fuentes claims. It was the West's first fully conscious claim on the terrain that lies between revelation and fraud. Fiction is not Gospel truth. It is not Scripture. But though it is invented, it is not invented in the way that a lie is invented. You can't ask honesty of a liar; you can ask it of a novelist. This seems obvious to us, but it was not always obvious to everybody. Cervantes' immortal character stands for the innumerable men of his day to whom it was not obvious at all. The adventure behind the "Adventures" is the adventure of what they were learning.

Fuentes reminds us that Cervantes portrays Don Quixote first and foremost as a reader . The adventures of Achilles, Aeneas, Sir Lancelot do not begin with the reading of any book. Those of Don Quixote do. And, accordingly, the resolution of his adventures, unlike the resolution of theirs, involves a new attitude toward books and the making of books and therewith a new attitude toward all received accounts of reality. It is the novelty of this attitude which grounds Fuentes' claim that "Don Quixote" is more than a "satirical romance," more than a precursor of the modern novel, but is rather itself the first modern novel.

The enlightenment of Don Quixote, as Fuentes understands it, is paradoxical. The old books, the old chivalry that so inspired the knight are exposed in the course of his adventures as untrue, at least in the way he had believed them to be true. But they are not shamed or discredited as lies. And more important, there is no "new" reality waiting to replace them. Sancho Panza is not an alternative to Don Quixote.

Trust that a new reality will be "there" for those with new eyes to see it is not the resolution of Don Quixote's dilemma, Fuentes says, but simply the matching naivete of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, "the first capitalist, a self-made man who accepts objective reality and then fashions it to his needs through the work-ethic, common sense, resilience, technology and, if need be, racism and imperialism." For the Mexican novelist Crusoe and Quixote are "the antithetical symbols of the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic worlds."

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