Is ‘Don Quixote’ still relevant? San Bernardino councilman swears it is – San Bernardino Sun

May I return to the subject of “Don Quixote”? Many of you chimed in about Miguel de Cervantes’ 1615 novel after my column about reading it and loving it. This included a Pomona College literature professor who had a thoughtful take.

But first, let me dig into the local angle no one saw coming: the odd intersection of “Don Quixote” and the San Bernardino City Council.

It started when I brought the book to a council meeting, making it past the milestone of page 500 (of 940) while waiting for the meeting to start. Councilman Theodore Sanchez asked me privately what I was reading and felt a competitive urge sweep over him.

A couple weeks later, Sanchez told me: “I was going to top you. I was going to read it in Spanish.”

What happened?

“I could only get through page 20 and could only understand every other word. It’s written in an old style of Spanish,” Sanchez admitted. “Now I’m going to have to read it in English.”

Before he could do so, Sanchez, who was reelected Nov. 8, was sworn in for his second term on Dec. 21. Why am I telling you this? Because he chose not to take the oath on a Bible. He used a substitute book.

My copy of “Don Quixote.”

He’d asked me to bring it. When he saw me at the meeting he asked if I had it. It was in my car in case he was serious, which he turned out to be, so I retrieved it.

As he moved into place to take the oath of office, I discreetly made the handoff. He gave the book to the deputy clerk, who held it while Sanchez raised his right hand.

And so, Sanchez swore to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, his left hand atop my imposing paperback of “Don Quixote.”

The fictional Don Quixote, who roams Spain as a knight errant and fights imagined enemies, foreign and domestic, might have looked upon the scene with pride.

Only a handful of people knew. I felt as if I were playing a minor, absurdist role in local history.

On Facebook, some of you told me you’ve read the book and liked it.

Steve Hassler: “I read it in Spanish class in HS. Took us all year. I liked it so much I saw the play.”

Steve Jankiewicz: “English class. Very good read and stories.”

Natalie Stalwick: “In college decades ago. I enjoyed it at the time, especially in comparison with some other first-year required reading. Since then, becoming acquainted with the characters and the episodes has been useful and interesting because of frequent references to them in literature and current events.”

Martha Q. Bautista: “My son tried to read the Spanish version but when he read it again (in English) he liked it more.”

Others tried and failed.

Stacy Gustin: “I started reading it during the height of the pandemic. I think I made it as far as the third chapter. I don’t remember why I stopped. I intend to finish it…one day.”

As I reminded Stacy, getting to Chapter 3 means she quit after 12 pages.

Gayle Twogood: “I started it about five years ago. I guess I wasn’t as dedicated as you. I lost interest.”

I hope Gayle is able to finish this column!

On Twitter, reader Cristóbal said he’d attempted to read the novel in Spanish but found the antiquated form difficult.

“I’ve tried more than once to finish it, but I always feel like I’m studying for a book report I have to turn in,” he said. “More my mental block at this point.”

Two of the many English translations of "Don Quixote," the Spanish classic, as seen at a bookstore. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Two of the many English translations of “Don Quixote,” the Spanish classic, as seen at a bookstore. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Via email, Doug Evans told me he read “Don Quixote” on his first trip to Spain with his wife to visit her study-abroad host family.

“One memory I have is taking the book with me to the beach,” Evans recalled. A member of the host family expressed surprise that he was reading “Quixote.”

“Hasn’t everyone in Spain read it?” Evans asked impishly.

“Yeah,” the woman replied, “but not on the beach.”

José Reynaldo Cartagena, an associate professor in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Pomona College, was happy to discuss the novel by email even while he was traveling. He teaches it in the original Spanish, in an edition with explanatory aids, and says students tend to get a lot out of it.

What makes “Don Quixote” the first modern novel, I asked?

In part, it’s that Cervantes “represents reality as contradictory and uncertain” via ambiguity, unreliable narrators and other techniques employed by later novelists, Cartagena said.

The novel also raises questions about authorship, readership and fiction itself. Cervantes pretends to have merely assembled the novel from various “found” accounts. Quixote starts on his quest after reading too many adventure novels and going mad.

“It’s a book about books and the effects they have on our lives,” Cartagena said.

“One of the ideas that Cervantes proposes,” he continued, “is that certain types of books can be enjoyable to the point of addiction while making their readers lose a grasp on reality.” He said a modern version might feature “a character addicted to social media in the post-truth environment we are currently living in.”

(Did anyone at the Jan. 6 insurrection carry a lance? Just curious.)

Gender, race, class, colonialism and “unorthodox forms of desire” are among the still-relevant cultural issues at play in “Don Quixote,” Cartagena noted, but the novel is also very funny.

“Legend has it that when King Philip III of Spain overheard a page laughing hystericallyand saw him clapping his hand to his forehead while reading a book,” Cartagena related, “he murmured that the young man was either mad or reading ‘Don Quixote.’”

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