“Don Quixote”by Miguel de Cervantes is one of my favorite books of all time. It is considered the first modern novel, a wonderful read that you can interpret on various levels, and a must-read for authors (at least in my opinion) for one reason: narration and narratology (the study of the narrative art.)
The onion-like, complex narrative structure of Cervantes’s masterpiece is largely the reason the work is considered by many scholars to be the first modern novel. It’s amazingly fun as well as funny. And it gives any writer a lot to think about: like the difference between first and third person narration (I’ll discuss that tomorrow as it appears in “Don Quixote”) and how we as readers sometimes just assume a narrator is telling us the truth.
“Don Quixote” forces readers to consider where the story’s coming from. Who’s telling it. It’s a real eye-opener for any writer.
“Don Quixote” starts like a normal novel. We have a first person narrator (the first line is, “In a part of La Mancha, whose name I don’t want want to remember….) but that narrator isn’t part of the story. He’s not a character, at any rate. He doesn’t interact with Don Quixote or his squire Sancho.
This narrator claims that he did research in the annals of La Mancha on the illustrious figure of Don Quixote and is telling us what he found. Basically, he is asserting credibility for his tale. “I researched this.” “I can back it up.” “It’s all true, I promise.”
The first narratological twist comes in Chapter 8, right in the middle of a battle between Don Quixote and a man from the Basque country. We don’t know how the battle ends or who wins. Our first narrator tells us that basically, his source material ran out at that point, so he can’t tell us any more.
In Chapter 9 we meet the second narrator. He is unnamed, but tells us that he was so upset after reading chapters 1-8 that he tried to track down further information to find out what happened to Don Quixote. One day, walking through the city of Toledo, he found an Arabic man laughing at something.
This Arabic man was a merchant and had pages, written in Arabic, which the second narrator couldn’t read. But there were also pictures, pictures of Don Quixote fighting the Basque. So in TONS of excitement the second narrator buys the papers and pays a bilingual boy to translate them.
However, our new narrator warns us that the text was supposedly written by a man named “Cide Hamete Benengeli” (“Cide” was an Arabic term of respect, like “Sir”) and that Arabs aren’t to be trusted. (There was a LOT of historical baggage between Spanish Catholics and the Moors. And the book was published in 1605, so it’s not like racism wasn’t a thing then.)
The second narrator tells us we can’t trust that the information we’re going to get is historically accurate because Arabs are liars and it’s doubtful that Cide Hamete would have told the truth. Anyway, the translator was also Arabic. So HE could have lied to, or just have been a bad translator.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Basically, everything else we read is the supposed translation of that Arabic text, which we have been explicitly warned we can’t trust. There are interjections from the translator, from Cide Hamete himself (translated from his original Arabic) and from the second narrator, all of whom want to draw our attention to different things.
My personal favorite of these interjections comes in the second part, published in 1615. After Sancho Panza and his wife have a conversation, we are told that this material is probably apocryphal because Sancho is a farmer and the text just isn’t believable as presented. He and his wife would never talk that way, use such big words, or act like that.
Again, the text is from 1605 and 1615, so there’s really no reason to get hung up on whether it’s politically correct. Besides being a crazy interesting testament to the religious and cultural issues of Cervantes’s day, it’s a narration of (supposedly) many levels, so that we are getting a story many times moved from the supposed real events.
Cervantes played SO much with the idea of narration, and what it is, and whether it’s reliable, and what makes it reliable and what crosses the line at which we stop giving a narrator the benefit of the doubt. For me, that’s what makes this classic a useful read for a writer, especially any writer who is interested in playing with narrative devices or techniques.
Cervantes is one of the earliest examples of an author who plays with what we expect in terms of narration. And the result is not only fun, it’s downright hilarious.
I should mention this is one of the few times you can trust that I know what I’m saying when I recommend something 🙂 I was a grad student in Spanish lit, and I took a narratology course through my university’s English department. I was delightfully surprised by how many of the books I had to read in that course about the art of narration mentioned “Don Quixote,” and not in passing. Huge sections. Using Cervantes multiple times as an example of how to narrate.
If you are interesting in narration as a tool, a toy, then I can promise you “Don Quixote” is worth a read. You could do far, far worse to get you thinking about interesting, unique way to tell a story.