Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mike, Don and Sancho

When I was a boy there was a book called Don Quixote which, from the picture on the cover, seemed to be about fighting windmills. The name was pronounced as Don Quick Soat – to rhyme with boat. Nowadays Britons seem to pronounce the title with a Spanish lilt - Donkey Oaty. Spaniards call the same book El Quijote. I was a bit disappointed when I found out the key character is not really called Don and goes by the name of Alonso Quixano. Don is a bit like esquire in English; it poshens up a name without really meaning anything. Telephone sales reps often call me Don Cristofer.

El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha is, according to people who know, one of the greatest fiction books ever written. Estimates also suggest that it's the best selling book of all time with 500 million copies sold which is way ahead of the number two book, A Tale of Two Cities, at 200 million. El Quijote was written, and published, in two parts in 1605 and 1615. The book pokes fun at the chivalrous romantic novels which were popular at the time. The hero is a scatter brained fellow who lives in a dream world and thinks he is a gallant knight of noble birth. He wanders the countryside, especially the plains of Castilla la Mancha, on his bony horse, Rocinante, wearing an old suit of armour, armed with a lance and shield and dreaming of his lady love, Dulcinea, He gets into scrape after scrape accompanied by his trusty servant Sancho Panza riding his plodding donkey. Sancho is quite different to his master. He's as fat as his master is skinny and whilst he may be from a simple and humble background he's also a practical sort of bloke with a nimble mind – the perfect counterpoint to his boss.

Miguel de Cervantes wrote el Quijote. He was born in 1547, the fourth of seven children, to a poor travelling medical man. He had any number of brushes with authority, often because he was in debt, and had to do several moonlight flits. At 21 Cervantes was in Italy, then part of the Spanish Empire, working as a servant to a Cardinal. A couple of years later he'd signed up as a soldier with the Christian forces ranged against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Cervantes was at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 where a Christian fleet, largely bankrolled by the Spanish, defeated an Ottoman fleet. It was the last major naval battle fought between rowing vessels. Cervantes was shot three times at Lepanto losing most of the mobility in his left hand as a result. He continued his military career until, in 1575, he was captured, by Ottoman pirates, and imprisoned in Algeria. Over the five years of his imprisonment he tried to escape several times but it was ransom money, sent from Spain, that eventually got him home and stopped him being sold into slavery.

By 1587 Cervantes was in Seville where he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Navy as it prepared the Armada to sail against England. He ended up in prison, once again, when he invested crown funds with a bank that went bust. He got into more trouble in his next job too when he worked as a tax collector because the amount he collected and the amount he handed over didn't quite add up!

Cervantes could only write in his spare time. It is thought that he started to write El Quijote when he was in jail. He'd already written one book and several plays, with very little success, so he was 57 by the time his best seller was published. Even as El Quijote was rolling off the presses, an almost instant success, Cervantes was still trying to find that elusive well paid government job. He may well have already known the truth that he would never see any royalties from the book sales. Scholars think that he was working as a banker or accountant by this time because, somewhere along the way, he picked up a pension from the Count of Lemos which allowed him to dedicate the last few years of his life to full time writing. He died of type II diabetes in 1616.

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