Don Quixote is one of those books that really needs no introduction. You know what it’s about, whether you’ve read it or not: man reads too many books on chivalry, goes nuts, fancies himself a knight errant, grabs a portly squire, and engages in farcical quests around Spain. It is generally regarding as the milestone between classic and modern literature, the godfather of the novel as a literary form, the foundation on which all other novels are built.
As such, it’s perhaps not surprising that the book feels transitional, a chrysalis frozen mid-metamorphosis between the chivalric romance, with its loosely-knit cycle of quests and little interlaized drama or continuity, and the novel, with its focus on character arcs and psychology. This makes it fascinating, but also frustrating at time, as the story too often veers toward ancillary characters, who present self-contained dramas that Don Quixote witnesses but has no real bearing on. THe constant speechifying also drags a bit on modern ears, as characters often answers in paragraphs what could be said in sentences. The trait is so pervasive at times that even the other characters comment on it, chastizing one another for being long-winded.
This brings me to what was, to my eyes, the biggest surprise of the novel, which is how post-modern it feels. Metatextuality is generally associated with literature of the mid-20th century and beyond, but Cervantes got there about 350 years earlier. Moments of winking self-awareness appear in the first part, where Cervantes leverages a scene in which Don Quixote’s books are destroyed to plug his own work and comment on those of his fellow authors.
But the meta quotient really kicks in in part 2 (written ten years after part one but now widely considered a part of the original novel rather than a sequel). In this section, the original book has been written and exists in the universe of the sequel, where many of the characters Don Quixote encounters have read it. Part 2 also mentions a phony sequel, which was actually written (and served as a catalyst for Cervantes to write his own sequel). Cervantes takes multiple shots at it. having Don Quixote and Sancho Panza lambast it for its innaccuracies. A character form the phony sequel even appears in Part 2, where he admits that the supposed Don Quixote he encountered must be fake, and signs a sort of affadavit to that effect.
These exchanges provide a lot of the book’s humor, and it is a very funny book—surprisingly so, given how humor can sometimes fare poorly over time. I’ve never laughed at a joke in a Shakespeare play, but a laughed a number of times here (though often this was at stuff like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza puking in each other’s faces, or Sancho taking a sneaky dump off the side of his mule while Don Quixote drones on about chivalry, so maybe that says more about me than Shakespeare).
All told, I think calling it the bets novel of all time is over-selling it (certainly that would mean the genre peaked early), but it deserves its place in the canon and is worth reading.