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BOOKS & IDEAS

The quixotic don

The cultural pull of Cervantes' creation runs dark and deep, influencing Latin American literature, music and art.

June 24, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — CERTAIN make-believe characters loom like giants in the collective psyche: Hamlet, Madame Bovary, Captain Ahab, Tony Soprano. They serve, for better or worse, as humanity's behavioral role models and cast long shadows over our communal dream lives.

But for lasting influence across a wide swath of the planet, it would be hard to match the deep imprint left on Latin America by one fictional figure in particular: Don Quixote.

Two years ago, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first part of Miguel de Cervantes' picaresque epic was marked with scholarly symposiums and reams of thumb-sucking prose from Mexico City to Buenos Aires.

Yet Cervantes' "ingenious gentleman" is such a paragon of Latin identity, and the book in which he stars such a cracked-mirror image of enduring hemispheric obsessions, that Don Quixote remains a perpetual presence in Latin American culture. Every year, the old warrior gets put back on his trusty nag Rocinante and trotted out to do metaphorical battle -- in literature, editorial cartoons, music, art.

It's hardly surprising that Don Quixote still captivates Spain, his birthplace. Nearly half a millennium since he sprang into being on a Madrid printing press, he is the country's most famous trademark (now rivaled by the Real Madrid and Barcelona soccer teams). The most prestigious prize in Spanish letters is named for Cervantes, and el Quixote himself is instantly recognizable in hundreds of tourist-tchotchke incarnations, as well as in more exalted guises, such as Picasso's famous silhouette.

Don Quixote's relationship with Spain's former colonies is more complex. Cervantes' masterpiece always has belonged more to the Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking than to the Anglophone or Francophone countries of the New World. Some scholars even argue that if not for the New World's "discovery" half a century before Cervantes was born, "Don Quixote" as we know it might not even exist.

Like many writers of Spain's literary Golden Age, Cervantes was fascinated by the exotic accounts of Europeans arriving in the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the second part of "Don Quixote," and in his last novel, "Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda," he makes numerous wide-eyed mentions of the strange new hemisphere.

Several scholars, notably Diane de Armas Wilson in her influential study "Cervantes and the New World," have noted how Cervantes imported words of Amazonian origin and wove anecdotes and facts from what he called "the remote Indies" into his later fictions. At one point, he even wrote to the Spanish authorities seeking to obtain a post in the colonies.

Michael K. Schuessler, who teaches at the Autonomous Metropolitan University here, has written that "it is not coincidental that the discovery, conquest, and subsequent colonization" of the New World -- "with its curious inhabitants, temperate clime, lush vegetation, fabulous riches and mythological proportions" -- coincided with the era of "Spain's greatest artistic and literary production," including "Don Quixote." While Spain was colonizing the New World politically and economically, the New World was colonizing Spain imaginatively.

Inspiration from afar

IT was the novelty (to Spanish eyes) of the New World that partly inspired Cervantes to help invent a new literary form with "Don Quixote": the novel, which, unlike most poetry or drama of the period, was grounded in the ordinary events of daily life. But it strove to embroider these quotidian happenings with intensely realistic descriptions and keen psychological and social insight.

With this new art form, Cervantes broke with, and simultaneously lampooned, the popular chivalric romances that spur Don Quixote to imagine himself to be a gallant medieval knight slaying giants and saving damsels in distress. "Don Quixote" also implicitly parodies the knight-conquerors of the New World, the conquistadors, whose flowery rhetoric and chivalrous posturings hardly masked their greed and brutality.

In the Latin American imagination, Don Quixote has functioned both as a symbol of the former colonies' knotty old-world heritage and as a rebel figure whose absurd behavior pulls the rug out from under the Old World's affectations and delusions of superiority (and, by extension, those of any great power). Over the last four centuries of Latin American cultural history, Cervantes and his mad visionary have had many disciples and imitators. What's striking is how powerful their presence remains even today.

Jorge Luis Borges, the reality-bending Argentine writer who dominated South American short fiction during the mid-20th century, shared "Don Quixote's" Baroque fixation on stories-within-stories and with the idea that a book's author is himself a kind of semi-fictional creation. (The Baroque era was very big on mirrors and surfaces that simultaneously conceal and reveal.)

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