QUIXOTE AT 400: A Tribute

PAUL AUSTER: In City of Glass, a man named Daniel Quinn whose initials are D.Q. has taken on a job as a private detective under the name of someone named Paul Auster. He meets Paul Auster, who turns out not to be the detective at all. And they’re having a conversation—this Auster that he meets is a writer, of all things—and during this conversation they have, I will quote, he began to question Auster about his writing. Auster was somewhat reticent about it, but at least he conceded that he was working on a book of essays. The current piece was about Don Quixote:

“One of my favorite books,” said Quinn.

“Yes, mine too. There’s nothing like it.”

Quinn asked him about the essay.

“I suppose you could call it speculative, since I’m not really out to prove anything. In fact, it’s all done tongue-in-cheek. An imaginative reading, I guess you could say.”

“What’s the gist?”

“It mostly has to do with the authorship of the book. Who wrote it, and how it was written.”

“Is there any question?”

“Of course not. But I mean the book inside the book Cervantes wrote, the one he imagined he was writing.”


“It’s quite simple. Cervantes, if you remember, goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author. The book, he says, was written in Arabic by Cid Hamete Benengeli. Cervantes describes how he discovered the manuscript by chance one day in the market at Toledo. He hires someone to translate it for him into Spanish, and thereafter he presents himself as no more than the editor of the translation. In fact, he cannot even vouch for the accuracy of the translation itself.

“And yet he goes on to say,” Quinn added, “that Cide Hamete Benengeli’s is the only true version of Don Quixote’s story. All the other versions are frauds, written by imposters. He makes a great point of insisting that everything in the book really happened in the world.”
“Exactly. Because the book after all is an attack on the dangers of the make-believe. He couldn’t very well offer a work of the imagination to do that, could he? He had to claim that it was real.”

 “Still, I’ve always suspected that Cervantes devoured those old romances. You can’t hate something so violently unless a part of you also loves it. In some sense, Don Quixote was just a stand-in for himself.”

“I agree with you. What better portrait of a writer than to show a man who has been bewitched by books?”


 “In any case, since the book is supposed to be real, it follows that the story has to be written by an eyewitness to the events that take place in it. But Cide Hamete, the acknowledged author, never makes an appearance. Not once does he claim to be present at what happens. So, my question is this: Who is Cide Hamete Benegeli?”

“Yes, I see what you’re getting at.”

“The theory I present in the essay is that he is actually a combination of four different people. Sancho Panza is of course the witness. There’s no other candidate—since he is the only one who accompanies Don Quixote on all his adventures. But Sancho can neither read nor write. Therefore, he cannot be the author. On the other hand, we know that Sancho has a great gift for language. In spite of his inane malapropisms, he can talk circles around everyone else in the book. It seems perfectly possible to me that he dictated the story to someone else—namely, to the barber and the priest, Don Quixote’s good friends. They put the story into proper literary form—in Spanish—and then turned the manuscript over to Simon Carrasco, the bachelor from Salamanaca, who proceeded to translate it into Arabic. Cervantes found the translation, had it rendered back into Spanish, and then published the book The Adventures of Don Quixote.”

“But why would Sancho and the others go to all that trouble?”

“To cure Don Quixote of his madness. They want to save their friend. Remember, in the beginning they burn his books of chivalry, but that has no effect. The Knight of the Sad Countenance does not give up his obsession. Then, at one time or another, they all go out looking for him in various disguises—as a woman in distress, as the Knight of the Mirrors, as the Knight of the White Moon—in order to lure Don Quixote back home. In the end, they are actually successful. The book was just one of their ploys. The idea was to hold a mirror up to Don Quixote’s madness, to record each of his absurd and ludicrous delusions, so that when he finally read the book himself, he would see the error of his ways.”

“I like that.”

“Yes. But there’s one last twist. Don Quixote, in my view, was not really mad. He only pretended to be. In fact, he orchestrated the whole thing himself. Remember: throughout the book Don Quixote is preoccupied by the question of posterity. Again and again he wonders how accurately his chronicler will record his adventures. This implies knowledge on his part; he knows beforehand that this chronicler exists. And who else is it but Sancho Panza, the faithful squire whom Don Quixote has chosen for exactly this purpose? In the same way, he chose the three others to play the roles he destined for them. It was Don Quixote who engineered the Benegeli quartet. And not only did he select the authors, it was probably he who translated the Arabic manuscript back into Spanish. We shouldn’t put it past him. For a man so skilled in the art of disguise, darkening his skin and donning the clothes of a Moor could not have been very difficult. I like to imagine that scene in the marketplace at Toledo. Cervantes hiring Don Quixote to decipher the story of Don Quixote himself. There’s great beauty to it.”

“But you still haven’t explained why a man like Don Quixote would disrupt his tranquil life to engage in such an elaborate hoax.”

“That’s the most interesting part of all. In my opinion, Don Quixote was conducting an experiment. He wanted to test the gullibility of his fellow men. Would it be possible, he wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction spew out lies and nonsense? To say that windmills were knights, that a barber’s basin was a helmet, that puppets were real people? Would it be possible to persuade others to agree with what he said, even though they did not believe him? In other words, to what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent. For the proof is that we still read the book. It remains highly amusing to us. And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book—to be amused.”