Marking Don Quixote's b'day
They say William Faulkner read it every year and former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez peruses it daily. One expert recommends you read it thrice before you die, while another envies those who haven't touched it - yet.
Don Quixote, the endearing tale of a mad, errant knight and his sidekick, Sancho Panza ' described variously as the "universal novel" or the "bible of humanity" - celebrates its 400th birthday this week, kicking off a yearlong party for one of the world's most acclaimed literary works.
"It's a book that means all things to all people," said literature professor Howard Mancing of Purdue University in Indiana. "It's hard not to see yourself in Don Quixote and Sancho."
Middle-aged and unsuccessful, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra started
in the late 1500s - some say during one of several spells in prison. The first of its two volumes came off the presses on December 20, 1604, and went on sale on January 16, 1605. Cervantes completed the second volume in 1615, a year before dying. From Day 1, it's been a best seller. Four centuries on, it's still ranked as the most published and translated book after the Bible.
"I've read thousands of novels but I've never read anything that I've wanted to come back to the way I do this one," Mancing said. With astonishing unanimity, writers and readers praise it the world over. In 2002, a panel of 100 leading authors from 54 countries chose Don Quixote as the best book ever. It bagged 50 per cent more votes than any other book.
The anniversary has bookshops overflowing with new editions, some with CD-ROMs, and complementary texts. Institutes, universities and local authorities, meanwhile, promise an exhaustive list of seminars, conferences, readings, adaptations, theater works, films and concerts in Spain, but also across the globe. "This celebration will reach every public library in every corner," Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said. Companies are being given tax breaks to help promote the opus while schools have free new children's editions for their pupils.
"The most important tribute you can pay the book is to read it," said Calvo.
Easier said than done.
In the original, Don Quixote spans 126 chapters and nearly 1,000 pages. Written in archaic although beautifully crafted Spanish, it demands considerable patience and concentration. Translations and modern language adaptations lighten the task but even still, most people, Spaniards included, shy from it. "Everyone has it on their bookshelves but not even a minority get through it," said Juan Victorio, medieval literature professor at Spain's National Open University who first read it to his bedridden, illiterate grandfather as a child.
Many are happy sticking to the greatly simplified and substantially doctored 1970s film version of the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, with the movie starring Peter O'Toole as the crazy knight and Sofia Loren as the beautiful Dulcinea.
"Most people in Japan have never read it, but they know Don Quixote. They love his adventures," said Mika Kudo, a 35-year-old Japanese tourist guide, as her group took snaps and shot each other on video beside the bronze statues of the famous knight and his partner in Madrid's Plaza de Espana.
"It's by no means impossible to read," defends Edward Friedman, a Spanish professor and Cervantes expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "It's a great pleasure, but it's good to read it with someone or something guiding you."