Friday, December 18, 2015

Don Quijote In America

Christmas 2015, and the Mindbenders Book Club in San Francisco is wrapping up its year of only reading the very best literature from around the world; a book a month, and then one major piece for which the entire year is granted as time to complete it. Calvino and Kafka, Marquez and Nabokov, Joyce and Melville for the monthly reads, but tonight it's time to wrap up Cervantes' "Don Quijote", or "Quixote" in the Anglo-American spelling.

We are struggling with the multitudes of translations, and it is not primarily those into the English of the Victorian age or 1990s America, but the ones into the remarkably different languages of the several Spanish speakers in the room, two of whom are not native Spaniards but learned the language in the mother country, one of whom is of indigenous El Salvadorian blood and prefers Creole to the Classical lingo of the conqueror and occupier, a fourth is a Venezuelan who regards all other forms of Spanish as anachronistic and incorrect, the fifth an Argentine who has to use the dictionary to learn the meanings of many of Cervantes' neologisms - so no surprise when our conversation turns to Borges, and we begin to understand why he wrote "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", a fictional tale which brilliantly sums up the entirety of post-modernist and structuralist academic theorising and criticism in just eight pages. Every book is different for every reader in every language and at every point of history; but perhaps few are quite so universally different as this one.

So we return to the English translations, all of which likwise transform the novel into something very different again that may not always be what Cervantes intended (not that we know any longer what it was that Cervantes did intend). The Victorian translation presents a rather seriously-minded tale about a delusionary Romantic who learns the hard way. The 1990s version clearly spent too many hours absorbed by Monty Python, and sees Quixote as a Spanish equivalent of "Life of Brian" - a satire on absolutely everything, but especially on the ideals and values that those who occupy the moral high ground like to proclaim, while never actually attempting to live them by example; Quixote sets out to be that example, and his tale is the inexorable consequence: Candide on horseback. The recent American version simply doesn't get the Quijote at all, because it doesn't understand that Spanish culture in Cervantes' time was a very recent emergence from seven hundred years of Islam, but with the Spanish Inquisition in brutal charge of the process of emergence; even more significantly, Americans really don't get satire. I had anticipated this, and had prepared a "treatment" for a late 20th century American retort to Cervantes, which I entitled "Don Quijote in America".

   I imagine Don Quixote Jnr III, grandson of illegal Mexican immigrants who wet-backed into Texas with their extended family when no one was paying attention during World War Two, and made his way to New York where, despite being deaf in one ear, Miguel's father, Rodrigo, earned his living as a barber-surgeon, setting bones, performing bloodlettings, and attending "lesser medical needs", when not simply cutting hair. Don, or Donald as he always insisted, was born on September 29th 1947[1], and grew up in the 1950s, a total believer in that wonderful chivalric romanticism The Great American Dream.

    In the late 1960s, accompanied by his dad’s former houseboy Sancho Panza, Donald headed across America on a retired Greyhound Bus operated by the Rocinante Bus Company, aiming for the West Coast but travelling via the Deep South, in search of fame and fortune and freedom in the land of opportunity. After spending several months serving Walburgers in the bad end of West Baltimore, he was forced out of his zero-hours contract by a gang-leader who didn’t know that Black Lives Matter and thought that Mexicans and Blacks were just the same; then spent three months in jail trying to prove he wasn’t an Islamic Radical sympathiser just because he was wearing a PLO head-scarf and read poetry by Hafiz. Three months as toilet attendant in a tourist restaurant on a former cotton plantation outside Charleston ended when he was caught reading Mark Twain during the lunch break that his contract didn’t actually permit, and he was then chased out of town by the Ku Klux Klan for daring to assert his rights as an “honorary black man”. His last job was in a wind-farm in the Yosemete mountains that unfortunately burned to the ground in the annual fires.

   While Sancho busked Bob Dylan protest songs, and was beaten to death by a group of Christian evangelists when he tried to take his pregnant girlfriend to an abortion clinic, Donald attempted to gain an education by reading Thoreau, Emerson and Walt Whitman, but was still turned down from every university to which he applied on the grounds that they needed quarterbacks and golfers, not poets and scholars. He spent the last of the '60s and early '70s as a draft-dodger in Canada, worked as a bouncer in a brothel in Nevada for several years, before landing the plum job of PR consultant to an art-house production company in the San Fernando valley, whose high quality “love-interest and intimate human relationships” movies, as he re-branded them, profited to the tune of $60 billion dollars within three years, enabling the company to use the techniques of the leveraged buy-out to acquire the entire means of distribution for all the products in the world, and to furlough Don as a way of avoiding paying him the six months’ severage to which he was entitled.

Still believing in The American Dream, and planning to vote for Donald Trump, Don Quixote Jnr III was last heard of, homeless and penniless, sleeping in an Afghan rug on a bench outside the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, where a festival of Disney movies, accompanied by a biopic of the Founding Fathers and an anime version of the Bill of Rights, is in the planning.

[1] the 500th anniversary of Cervantes’ birth

It is by no means obvious to me how to translate my version either into Classical Spanish or El Salvadorean Creole, and in the current political climate I wouldn't even dare to try the Venezuelan dialect.

You will find a very different take on Don Quijote, or Quixote if you prefer, by clicking here

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