This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
There is a lot to say about Don Quixote! This discussion will not be very linear or logical, so bear with me. What struck me immediately was how funny and modern it felt. In the prologue, Cervantes complains about having to write poems to start his book, and how he won't do it. Next thing you know, you turn the page and there are several poems. This alone was funny, but then realizing they were written by fictitious knights in honor of Don Quixote made it even funnier. This was also impressive because it seems like such a modern, sarcastic thing to do. I guess this proves that sarcasm and irony are by no means modern inventions.
As the story progressed, the next characteristic that caught my attention was how often Cervantes inserted himself into the story, and how frequently it broke the fourth wall. Cervantes, obviously, was aware this was a story, but the way he pretended as though he were just relating the information he found in a history written by another scholar was quite clever. What made this even more interesting, however, was the way Don Quixote himself seemed to be aware he was in a story. Or, to be more accurate, he was so deluded about being such a great knight that he knew a story must be written about him at some point. "O thou, wise enchanter, whoever thou mayest be, whose task it will be to chronicle this wondrous history! I implore thee not to overlook my good Rocinante, my eternal companion on all my travels and peregrinations" (25).
This idea of a good enchanter is continued throughout the story, being attributed to things such as the naming of Don Quixote as The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, bringing Sancho back swiftly from meeting with Dulcinea, and prophesying a successful outcome of his slaying of the giant for Dorotea. Again, when you consider that, effectively, Cervantes is this enchanter, for he is the creator of the tale, then this becomes a very clever, modern idea. I don't know if this type of meta-storytelling occurred a lot at this time, but it still feels very modern, and so it is quite impressive to see it in Don Quixote.
On another note, early on it made me sad to think how pathetic Sancho was. Yes, it was greed that first caused him to go on this adventure, but the fact that throughout the work he believes Don Quixote must be telling the truth because he is a gentleman is pretty sad. I found myself unable to think of Sancho as a real, human character otherwise his pathetic qualities made it a far less fun book to read. You almost have to just laugh at Sancho's antics and move on, without thinking about it in too much detail.
One of the reasons I thought about reading this now was because the style and tone of The Well at the World's End reminded me of Don Quixote. After reading this, the first part, I think the comparison is valid (at least for the first part of Well). The way it is basically just one adventure after another with very little purpose for the characters fits very well together. Plus, there is the fact that there is a character named Dorotea in Done and Dorothea in Well. Coincidence, perhaps, but Dorothea strikes me as odd enough that it may have been intentional.
My biggest complaint about the first part of Don Quixote is the 2 novellas that we get towards the end. Right in the midst of some of the most humorous and entertaining antics, the flow of the novel grinds to a halt so the story of Lotario and Anselmo and then Zoraida can be related. While they are in and of themselves interesting, it was boring in the context of the book as a whole. I would have enjoyed Don Quixote as a whole much more without this tales, and I can see why they are likely cut from abridged versions of the book.
To play devil's advocate, I understand that these could be meant to parody existing books of chivalry, but it's a lot of effort for a single joke, and it really harms the book as a whole.
Something unrelated - I think it's interesting that everyone thinks of Don Quixote as always chasing down and attacking windmills when, in fact, he does it once and so early on in the story. It makes me wonder - is this as far as most people get when reading the book, so it's the most commonly referenced adventure he had? Or just the most iconic for its absurdity and for how it so perfectly capture Don Quixote's unique madness?
I definitely recommend this translation of Don Quixote. I don't know how different other translations are, but this one is excellent. It feels very modern, and the comedy comes through clearly. I really enjoyed reading it, and my only suggestion would be to simply skip the two novellas. Read them as separate works after you finish part one of the book, but don't let them interrupt the flow of the real story. I will eventually get to part two (I have to learn if Sancho ever becomes a governor, after all), but I need a break before I work my way through another 500 pages of Don Quixote's adventures.
"'That's the way,' said Sancho, 'I've heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I'd rather love and serve Him for what He can do.'"Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote
"Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing."Miguel de Cervantes the First Line of Don Quixote