It is now four centuries since the birth of a masterpiece whose author and hero both seem younger than we do. The simplest explanation for this may be found in Flaubert’s words about Don Quixote : “I found my origins in this book, which I knew by heart before I learned how to read.” Indeed, at the core of Don Quixote is something essential that we knew even before we read it but which became part of our nature only after we completed its mesmerizing journey. This is the unmistakable stamp of greatness in a writer.
Hunting after his own ghost – an obvious sign of inner unhappiness – Hidalgo searched for a place where dreams, reality, sainthood, love, and justice coexist. In their burlesque approach to humanity, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the most enduring and endearing clownish couple in world literature.
It is no surprise, then, that for the last 400 years Don Quixote and Panza have bred many relatives and successors, including countless buffoonish boss-and-servant couples. Even the history of the circus is focused on such a pairing: the vain, dignified White Clown and Augustus the Fool, the humble loser who is kicked in the pants by his stiff, pompous partner.
For an East European like myself, it is not easy to ignore the history of the circus – or history itself. The solemn Communist Manifesto announced the specter of the Great Utopia haunting Europe, but failed to warn us of the bloody tyranny. The gullible Sancho Panza was meant to adopt the revolution’s deceptive dogma as entitlement to wage a brutal war against all. The dream of improving the world disguised a farce that affected not only a single life, as in Cervantes’ story, and affected not only the misleading army of buffoons believed to be missionaries. This dream destroyed generations of victims.
In the world circus, the poet looks like a Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, and Augustus the Fool appears ill-equipped for everyday life. Like Don Quixote – and Cervantes himself – the artist dreams of other rules and rewards than his fellow men, who are content to digest their everyday lives.
In the socio-political arena, Augustus the Fool faces the Clown of Power. Cervantes’ political parody can be read in many twentieth-century East European stories. Its incomparable vitality and language, for example, find their way into the work of the Soviet writer Andrei Platonov. A communist who considered himself an honest proletarian writer, but called by Stalin, the Red Clown of Power, “svoloc” (scoundrel) and “balagancik” (buffoon), Platonov lived a lifelong ordeal.
His carnivalesque odyssey of totalitarianism displays a world of misery, boredom, and obedience in its dark journey to an unreachable paradise. The communist Knight, the new “caballero de la triste figura,” a kind of enlightened idiot, blinded by his loyalty to the unreal and by his harsh political correctness, considers Lenin a new Moses. He rides the Rosinante of the Proletarian Force, falls in love with the dead Rosa Luxemburg in her role as Comrade Dulcinea and has intercourse with a locomotive.
In today’s free-market carnival, nothing seems visible unless it is scandalous and nothing is scandalous enough to be memorable. So we pay homage to Cervantes at a time when we routinely co-habit with a very different outrageousness: religious fanaticism and terrorism, political manipulation, the cacophony of perverted simplification, the belligerent marriage between a new messianism and an aggrandizing quixotic blindness. So long as we celebrate Cervantes, however, perhaps all is not lost.