Monday, February 20, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“DON QUIXOTE”S DELUSIONS – Travels in Castilian Spain” by Miranda France (first published in 2001)

Some years ago, our eldest daughter and her husband spent part of their honeymoon in Spain. Before they departed on their journey, our daughter borrowed my battered old paperback copy of Don Quixote (J. M. Cohen’s Penguin translation) so that she could read it in the land where it was written. Later she bought and read Miranda France’s Don Quixote’s Delusions, a travel book about Castile.
On a recent trip to Europe my wife and I spent a mere six nights in Madrid. This was the first, and so far only, time that either of us had set foot on the Iberian Peninsula. I borrowed my daughter’s copy of this travel book to read in the down moments between visiting the Prado, taking a day-trip to the Escorial, spending an evening watching flamenco dancers and so forth. Yes – I knew we were merely tourists on a very short visit, but I thought it would be interesting to get a fellow-foreigner’s view of this country and its people.
An Englishwoman, Miranda France, fluent in Spanish, is the author of two travel books (this one, and one about Buenos Aires) and has more recently turned to writing novels. In Don Quixote’s Delusions she recalls her first, more youthful sojourn in Spain as a student in 1987-88 and sometimes contrasts this with Spain as it was on her second extended visit a year or two before Don Quixote’s Delusions was published. Her visits were largely confined to Madrid and the plains and villages of Castile, the country that Cervantes’ hero roamed.
Unless they are to be mere guide books, which any hack could compile, real travel books are in the nature of extended essays, giving the author’s views on a variety of things and having some sort of thematic focus. Miranda France’s focus is an attempt to interpret the Spanish national character in terms of Spain’s greatest literary masterpiece. Interspersed with autobiographical accounts of her own experiences are chapters on Don Quixote, what it says, how it has been interpreted by various illustrious thinkers, and what Spaniards now make of it.
When Miranda France first comes to Madrid in the late 1980s, a cab driver tells her he knows a nice cheap apartment. She rents it but, as soon as she moves in, she realises it is right next door to a brothel. All night long she hears the squeaking of bed-springs being vigorously punished. Cockroaches infest her room. She thinks of fleeing back to England; but she manages to find another apartment, which he shares with two bohemian types. It is in a louche quarter of Madrid frequented by druggies and transvestites who parade up and down the street outside their window.
The Spain she recalls from the late 1980s is one which had had democracy restored little more than a decade earlier (Franco died in 1975) and was still at the stage in which excess among the young, boozing, partying, taking drugs, promiscuous sex and (from a few) loud, rebellious, and occasionally revolutionary, utterances were common. In other words, it was the headiness of a restored freedom, which had yet to fully settle down to a functioning democracy.
The Spain she describes over a decade later is rather different. In Chapter 10 she visits Burgos (Franco’s headquarters for much of the civil war) and spends a number of pages excoriating Franco’s social views and the repressions of his regime, as well as giving a potted, journalistic history of the civil war. But she ends up admitting that post-Franco Spain is now “consumerist”, materialistic and has virtually nothing to do the revolutionary spirit that once animated people on both sides during the civil war. Perhaps I can substantiate this view. Despite my lack of Spanish, as I lay on my bed for a couple of nights in a hotel room in Madrid, I flicked among the dozens of private Spanish TV stations, and found the same mix of “reality” shows, game shows, soap-operas, sensational Fox-like news channels, dubbed American comedies and crime shows and mini-series as one would find in any other neoliberal Western country. In other words, it was the standard pap to fill the minds of a population that was once more politically militant and more culturally different from the rest of Europe. The fact that Spain has one of the lowest birth-rates in Europe (currently estimated to be below replacement level) probably deepens the focus on personal luxuries and trivia.
From the late 1980s, France tells the sad story of a rally by the (newly legalised) Spanish Communist Party spouting the same tired slogans that it used in the 1930s. This was mere months before Gorbachev initiated perestroika and the old Soviet Union fell apart. On her later visit she meets some ancient veterans of the civil war who remark (Chapter 9) “There’s nothing to say…. We were all fighting one another…. We never talk about it now.” One of them goes on to say that he and his brother were literally forced to fight on opposite sides, but that after the war they were great friends (“We were never interested in politics”). Spain now does not match any romantic ideals of strong will and purpose, Left or Right.
And what of the commentaries on Don Quixote?
She tells how Lope de Vega was jealous of Cervantes and sent him a rude letter saying that nobody would remember his silly book. She herself claims that Cervantes himself was a life-long “failure” who was as surprised as anyone to become famous with his great book only in late middle age. She quotes Nabokov as saying that Don Quixote outgrew his creator, who first saw the knight in purely comic terms, but later refashioned him as one who reinterprets the universe fruitfully. When Miranda France visits Salamanca (Chapter 5), she of course gives the views on Don Quixote of Unamuno (who was rector of Salamanca University) and Ortega y Gasset. She contrasts Cervantes (Chapter 6) with another great creative figure of Spain’s Golden Age, Theresa of Avila.
In Chapter 8 she spends much time pondering on whether the practical jokes practised on Don Quixote are now a sort of humour beyond recovery. In this, she instances the way the knight is frequently ridiculed for his love of “Dulcinea”, which allows her to tell the story of a student she knew in Madrid who was tricked into thinking a young woman was in love with him. She discusses (Chapter 9) Cervantes’ relatively benign view of Moors (much of Don Quixote is supposedly narrated by a Moor), which allows her to give a potted history of the expulsion of Moors from Spain; and the different periods of tolerance and intolerance of other religions that Catholic monarchs showed.
In the end, though, she cannot really nail Don Quixote, and all the interpretations of him, as something symbolic of the Spanish temperament. As she remarks (truly, I think):
Borges thought of Don Quixote as an unchanging monument, but a great book is like a house – it has to move, shift in the soil. Don Quixote keeps on meaning something different, depending on whether the reader is Freudian or Jungian, Nationalist or Republican, male or female. As the sorrowful knight has travelled across the centuries, inevitably he has evolved. The twenty-first century Don is no longer the figure of fun of the seventeenth century, nor the Romantic hero of the nineteenth….” (Chapter 11)
I’d be a cad not to admit that Don Quixote’s Delusions is a lively read with many amusing moments. Of course it is amusing when the author (in Chapter 11) chronicles the way small villages in La Mancha, playing to tourists, rival one another with claims to be the “real” setting of Cervantes’ novel, or claim that certain places are the sites of the novel’s fictitious events. (Mind you, this is no sillier than the Shakespeare industry in Stratford on Avon persuading gullible tourists that certain buildings have a connection with Shakespeare.) Some of her accounts of part-time student revolutionaries in the 1980s are also funny.
On the other hand, her quest to locate an elusive Spanish national spirit in Don Quixote does lead her to simplifications and there are moments in her writing where she seemed to be playing to cliché. When she tells us briefly how she was, when younger, in love with a Chilean “revolutionary” whose child she bore, we do wonder how much of the story she has censored out. And I couldn’t help feeling that her view of 1980s Spain might have been radically different had she been lodging with a real working-class or middle-class family rather than the colourful but rather silly bohemians and bums she did lodge with. 

Footnote: Just for the record, you may find elsewhere on this blog my own views on Don Quixote, on Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life in which Don Quixote is discussed, and on Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust, concerning the Spanish Civil War.

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