173. TMTF Reviews: Don Quixote

An angry airline passenger once wrote a humorous letter complaining about the meal he had been served. (I highly recommend reading the entire letter; it’s absolutely hilarious.) The letter gives what may be the best description I’ve ever read of crushing disappointment.

I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.

Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt.

I can give no better description of how I felt upon nearing the end of my copy of Don Quixote and realizing it was an abridged version. Who knows how many wonderful, hilarious adventures I missed?

Don Quixote

When beginning a literary classic, I always check the covers and title page for those dreaded words: Abridged Version. If I’m going to read a book, I want to read the whole darn thing. My copy of Don Quixote had no such warning. I only discovered it was an abridged version by comparing it to an online synopsis of the novel.

When I made this discovery, I felt betrayed. Don Quixote is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. How dare its editor remove parts of it without warning me!

Don Quixote is a hilarious book. (This surprised me, since most literary classics are either dull or depressing.) The novel’s humor comes from the solemnity with which its author describes the ridiculous misadventures of Don Quixote and Quixote’s even more ridiculous excuses for them. With the seriousness of a historian, the narrator describes absurdity after absurdity.

The novel tells the tragicomic story of a middle-aged Spanish man who, after spending days and nights poring over books of chivalry and adventure, loses his mind and decides to becoming a wandering knight-errant. He chooses the name Don Quixote, puts on some rusty armor and selects a local peasant girl to be the elegant lady in whose name he performs amazing feats. Thus prepared, he sallies forth on his quest for fame and glory. Don Quixote later recruits Sancho Panza, a gullible peasant who often swallows his master’s fantastical explanations for mundane (and often painful) misadventures.

The narrative is episodic. No complicated plots here: just a stupid old man and his stupid companion getting into scrape after scrape. (The most famous of these is Quixote’s famous assault upon unsuspecting windmills, which he insists are giants enchanted by a sorcerer to seem like windmills.) Don Quixote’s misadventures become gradually more complex as the novel progresses, but the story never becomes hard to follow.

As much as I enjoyed Don Quixote’s silly escapades, I found his commentaries upon them funnier still. He never failed to find a fairy-tale explanation for an ordinary event.

Don Quixote is a fascinating meditation on the dichotomy between stories and real life. Stories are often exciting, romantic and neat. By comparison, real life is usually dull, prosaic and messy. Don Quixote is the story of a man who tries to exchange a humdrum existence for a glorious tale of adventure.

In the end, what he gets is a hilarious comedy of mistakes and misadventures, and I think that is the great strength of Don Quixote. Apart from its value as a literary classic, it’s simply a funny book.

The only potential obstacle for readers is the novel’s literary style. It’s an old novel. Centuries old. Some of its language may be hard for modern readers to understand. This difficulty can be solved by finding a translation of the novel in contemporary English. A legendary classic like Don Quixote has almost certainly been adapted for casual readers.

In the meantime, I suppose I will have to find an unabridged version of the novel. I want to find out what I’ve missed!

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