Bicycle Diaries: Tilting at windmills

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Tilting at windmills

with the Ingenious Gentleman

Man of La Mancha, the successful Broadway musical that went on to become a critically acclaimed movie, has certainly entered the consciousness of American popular culture with its impossible dream of chivalry in a brutal age.

But it would be unfortunate for those who have enjoyed the performances of Peter O'Toole and James Coco to pass up the pleasures of Edith Grossman's sparkling, new translation of Cervantes's The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote. It remains accessible to contemporary readers without loosing the richness of Cervantes's bawdy, Spanish humor.

But be warned: this book is not for the faint-of-heart. Admirers, including Faulkner and Nabokov, have spent their entire lives reading it. Or rather, they return to their favorite parts with a loyalty that would have astounded even Sancho Panza, Quixote's bungling squire.

The challenge is less its length at 940 pages than the sheer exuberance of Cervantes's storytelling. He wraps what is essentially a tragedy of the delusional Quixote in a series of comedic encounters with the absurdities of 16th century Spain. By adeptly blending prose with verse and short plays, he creates a colorful world of enchanted windmills, shaving-basin helmets and noble ladies of easy virtue.

Cervantes also creates a darker world revealing a universal truth relevant to the contemporary reader: the insanity of sanity when religious fanaticism and its political allies successfully thwart the freedom to think, write and act as one pleases. But like his unswerving knight errant, Cervantes never succumbs to cynical pessimism.

At the beginning of Part II, Cervantes briefly describes the origins of his manuscript. Having purchased a pile of old Arabic notebooks and papers from a silk merchant in Toledo, he discovers the long-lost chronicle of Quixote written by a forgotten Muslim scholar. This fabrication recalls a golden age in Spain, well before the Inquisition and its Castilian Monarchs, when Muslims, Christians and Jews produced some of the greatest works of Spanish literature and philosophy.

It's for these reasons that Don Quixote is commonly accepted as the first modern novel. But under Groomsman's sensitive touch, it is also an exceptionally good, entertaining and enlightening read.

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