By Miguel de Cervantes
Unabridged recording by Blackstone Audio Books, Inc.
Read by Robert Whitfield
Let’s start off by agreeing that Don Quixote is one of the world’s great classics of literature. Okay? Still with me?
When I was in elementary school, my teachers would read us stories from Greek and Norse Mythology, the epic tale of Sparta vs the Persians (I found 300 to be amazingly unimaginative – “Huh? I’ve heard that one before.”) and passages from Don Quixote. Do elementary school student even hear of those things anymore? I don’t know, but I knew I had heard bits of the actual Don Quixote before I plunged into the recording.
I had never actually read the entirety of Cervantes’ classic before I came across the audio book and while I did know a bit more about it than what one might have known from watching Man of La Mancha, I was not prepared for some very long, boring and especially repetitive passages. Part of this is my fault, I am sure. Part of it could be that since I am not sufficiently proficient in Spanish so something was lost in translation, and the rest of it is probably the fact that my life experience has not led me to be immersed in the chivalric romances that littered the literary landscape at the time Cervantes wrote about his mad knight.
This last, I think, is the majority of what fell flat for me. Cervantes was not writing comedy when he penned Don Quixote, he was writing satire and satire is not always funny. At least it is not always laugh-out-loud funny. So we all know about the episodes with the windmill, and the barber, various encounters with thieves and ruffians, priests and what not, many modern readers will not be prepared for the long passages about the chivalric ideals and the satirical side of it will slide right past us. To make a modern comparison, it is like listening to Stephen Colbert’s “The Word,” without reading the words on the screen that appear to his left. Quixote and others go on and on (and on and on and on) about romantic and chivalric ideology and without the cultural context it sounds serious.
So if you are going to read Don Quixote you need to keep in mind that Cervantes is frequently being ironic or sarcastic. What he is saying in jest, other authors in his time and before said in frank seriousness. Since chivalric romance has been replaced in this modern age by the New York Times Best Seller List, many modern readers will just not get the joke. I knew what I was listening to and I did not find it anywhere near as amusing as Cervantes’ original readers must have.
If you are an avid reader of classic literature or even just well-versed in the classics, you have probably already read Don Quixote and at least some of the stories it pokes fun at. You get it better than I do. If you haven’t or if you just did not “get” Don Quixote, this is why it might seem dry and boring much of the time. It’s a good story but it is much better when you know just what Cervantes was trying to do. If not, this is just a story about a foolish, stubborn and somewhat insane old man who gets himself in a lot of trouble repeatedly. Even so, I felt sorry for him and did not appreciate the brutality he was repeatedly subjected to.
I did find it a bit amusing that in Book Two of Don Quixote Cervantes actually starts making fun of his own work. It’s an amusing situation when Quixote arrives at an inn and not only do people know his name but are anxious to hear someone read the latest tales concerning him. Furthermore, Cervantes uses it as an opportunity to take a valid pot shot at literary plagiarism when it turns out that some of these tales never happened to Quixote and were, in fact, made up by a Moorish author cashing in on the popularity of chivalric romances and Quixote himself. Was this also an intended racial stereotype or slander? Maybe. Certainly during the 17th Century in Spain it would have been wisest to attribute such a theft to a non-Christian. Or maybe that sort of thing actually happened to Cervantes? I don’t know, but plagiarism probably first appeared about the same time Mankind began to speak and tell stories. In any case, Cervantes spends an inordinate amount of time on Cide Hamete Benengeli who, in the story, is the chronicler of Don Quixote’s adventures even as he makes up ones that Quixote does not seem to experience himself. By the way, the name is satirical as well… look it up.
In all, this is a masterwork of satire of which all but the most physical of humor is sadly lost on many modern readers. So if you have not been exposed to the literature that it makes fun of, be prepared for some real slogging between the chuckles. Further, as the story progresses the chuckles to the modern eye become increasingly rare, possibly because there are just so many times you can watch a sick old man get beaten up, so try to keep the story in its context… or go back and watch Man of La Mancha, it’s a good play and movie and is abridged for modern enjoyment.
The Audio Book:
Mister Whitfield’s smooth British accent matches the text wonderfully. You might argue that since the original book was written in Spanish, perhaps an Hispanic reader should have been used. Well, okay, I can easily imagine this having been read by Ricardo Montalban. I think he might have done a wonderful job of it, but the job of reading an English translation of Don Quixote with an Hispanic accent could have gone wrong in so many ways. What could have been just the right touch of authenticity could just have easily been horrible as well. So in the absence of the right Hispanic reader, I found a British one just as good. Not sure how British listeners might have felt about it, but for me Mister Whitfield’s reading gave the story a good sense of it happening in a foreign land and at a time far removed from our own. Someone with a Midwestern American accent would have been all wrong.
The reading is pleasant and well-paced and even though there are some very long and dry passages (see my reasons for thinking so above), I think the reader gets us through. Perhaps, the only failing was that he did not read the passages as ironic. Note of irony in his voice might have given a better satirical flavor to the story, or maybe not. Irony and sarcasm can be taken too far as well, and frequently are.
You should probably read Don Quixote rather than just listen to it. I know I should have. If I had, though, I might not have bothered to listen to the recording. If you loved reading the story, you will probably enjoy this reading as well. If you haven’t read it, well, keep my warning in mind and appreciate this for what it is. A smooth and pleasant reading of an old classic of international literature.