Quixote at 400
NORMAN MANEA: We are celebrating four centuries since the birth of a masterpiece, author and hero. In the last four hundred years, the irresistible errant and dreamer Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza have been accompanied by numerous relatives and successors and by many similar buffoonish couples made of the boss and of his servant. You may imagine the boss as the President, the General Secretary, the Chief of Army, the boss of your marriage or of your building, whatever you think. You immediately discover the servant. Even the history of the circus is focused on such a couple: the vain, dignified white clown and, august as a fool, the humble and humorous loser, kicked in the ass by his stiff and pompous partner. In Cervantes’s narrative, the role of each is interchangeable with the other. The hilarious and wheedling companionship continuously varies the fascinating dynamics.
For somebody coming from the much-troubled area of Eastern Europe, it is not easy to ignore the connection between the history of the circus and history itself. The Communist Manifesto announced the specter of the great utopia haunting Europe, but failed to warn us against its bloody tyranny. The always-deceived Sancho Panza was meant to take a deceptive dogma of the revolution as an entitlement and start the brutal war against everybody. Don Quixote’s dream of bettering the world was to be used as a cover-up of a farce that didn’t affect only the misleading irony of buffoons believed to be missionaries, but instead destroyed generations of victims—the specter of Communist totalitarianism and the nightmarish Nazi totalitarianism of the world’s twentieth-century history.
We are paying homage to this great book in a time when we are reaching a routine cohabitation with a very different outrageousness: religious fanaticism and terrorism, political manipulation, the cacophony of perverted simplification, the belligerent marriage between a new messianism and an aggrandizing quixotic blindness. With a free market carnival, nothing seems visible unless it is scandalous and nothing is scandalous enough to be memorable. Yet, we are celebrating a book. As long as we are still entertaining this childish ritual, perhaps not everything is lost. We never have been interested in our neighbors called Sancho, Dulcinea, the barber, the priest, or even the old mad man, self-appointed great Hidalgo, as much as we were and still are in love with the characters impersonating them in this essential book about our not-too-idyllic human destiny. And we are grateful to our young Spanish colleague and master, Don Miguel de Cervantes de la Mancha.