Becoming Don Quijote
ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA
El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605) has long been considered the first modern European novel. Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina presented the following essay on the Quijote in commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of part 1 of Cervantes’s magnum opus (the novel was completed with the publication of a second part in 1614). Muñoz Molina presented his comments at the New York Public Library on April 16, 2005, during a program billed as “Don Quixote at 400: A Tribute,” which took place in conjunction with the first pen World Voices/New York Festival of International Literature. Other writers who made presentations on the Quijote included Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Assia Djebar, Claudio Magris, Norman Manea, Laura Restrepo, and Salman Rushdie.
Becoming, not being, is what the novel as an art form is all about, and that is why we regard Don Quijote as the first modern fictional hero. In epic poems, in tragedies, the task of the hero is to fulfill his destiny, to act out the deeds he was born to perform. The hero is meant to accomplish a foretold identity: Achilles was already himself in the cradle, and Ulysses could not help being smart and cunning. There are two kinds of people, wrote Saul Bellow: the “be-ers” and the “becomers.” According to Bellow–and it seems fitting to me to bring up his name tonight-the be-ers are those who try their best to remain forever the way they are, who are content with their lives, with their names, with the places they live in. Becomers always feel ill at ease with the world as it is, and what they love are not the certainties of being but the adventures of becoming. There is always another life they would rather be leading, a different country or distant city where they suspect a better life might be possible, another job, more beautiful or passionate lovers, more exciting friends. Personal identity is not their home but their prison. Identity, this celebrated mantra of contemporary culture, is not what they are in search of but what they are very often fleeing from. That is why the heroes of so many modern novels are liars, deceivers, fugitives, impersonators, impostors—vocational becomers perpetually unsatisfied with their lot in this world, forever trying not to be what other people have agreed or decided they are, but something else, somebody else. For them, as Arthur Rimbaud wrote, life is always elsewhere. But then Rimbaud was a fugitive himself, a poet and an outcast who gave up poetry altogether and became an arms trader in Africa.
Nowadays, as in Don Quijote’s time, social pressures compel us to conform to an established identity, to be part of a group and proudly proclaim what we already are, not what we have done or what we would like to be or do. Through our blind allegiance to an original culture, to our sexual, racial, or national being, we are expected to achieve our better self, the only possible one for each of us. This seems to be a time for be-ers, not becomers. But that is precisely why Don Quijote is so relevant, especially to those among us who are not willing to abide by any fixed laws of identity: that is why we love to read novels in the first place, and also why some of us love to write them, in an attempt to break through the boundaries we were not supposed to trespass, to escape beyond the limits of the self, the frontiers of space, and what Vladimir Nabokov called the prison of time. Novels, stories, and plays are almost always about someone who is eager to escape, who sets out on a journey toward an uncertain destination. Like a spy, or like a defector, the gentleman Alonso Quijano provides himself with a false identity before taking to the road. Changing the name that was given to you at birth is the first step toward starting on a new life: after having read so many adventures, Alonso Quijano is ready to enact a new one that has yet to be written, namely the adventure of becoming one of the heroes he has read so much about, the author and master of his own story. And like any author, he has to begin by choosing the right names for his characters: for himself, for the lady he has decided he must be in love with, even for his horse. Then he is ready to hit the road, to unburden himself of the routines of his respectable life, his house, his family, the small village where he was destined to live until the end of his days. By an act of sheer will he becomes what he is not, and by doing so he propels himself to a daring and dangerous freedom. Someone says to Don Quijote, almost at the beginning of the novel, “You are not a Knight errant; I am your neighbor and I know who you are.” And Don Quijote, beaten and wounded but not defeated, answers in a way that is for me a glorious statement about personal freedom and modern self-invention: “I know who I am. And I know I can be not only those I have mentioned but the twelve peers of France as well, and even all the nine paragons of Fame, for my deeds will surpass all those they performed, together or singly.”
Of course we know he is a ridiculous old man, ridiculously got up in battered, homemade armor, so intoxicated by what he has read in books that he can no longer tell reality from fiction. We laugh at him, because we know he is bound to be defeated again and again, to be taken in by his lack of attention to the hard facts of reality and his stubborn reliance on the lies told in books. But these are the dangers every becomer has to face, not only the heroes we have learned to love in novels, plays and films, but also each one of us. Who cannot say, like Don Quijote, I know who I am, and who I am in my heart of hearts has nothing to do with your ideas and your expectations about me? Our highest aims seem very often unreachable, and the same imagination that allows us to identify them exaggerates the hardships we will have to confront in order to achieve them. Being is comfortable, becoming is risky, and there is always the chance that we may tilt at windmills, mistaking them for frightful giants. This is the second lesson we learn from Don Quijote, and through him from Cervantes’s wisdom and irony: you should have the courage to desire but also the shrewdness to look very carefully at things so as not to get lost among the mirrors of your imagination. This book of laughter is also a book of sadness, and in its celebration of the power of desire and the joys of fiction lies a serious warning about the boundary between self-invention and self-delusion. Having been a failure himself most of his life, Cervantes knew what he was writing about. But appearances are deceiving, as we readers of Don Quijote’s adventures know all too well. Failure and success can be as deceiving as windmills and giants. If Miguel de Cervantes was really only an obscure Spanish writer, a failed playwright, a handicapped veteran, a survivor of poverty and misfortune, what is it that has brought so many of us here tonight to remember his name and pay tribute to his masterpiece?
New York City
Editorial note: Among the many renderings of the Quijote in English, the recent (and much acclaimed) Don Quixote, published by Ecco Press in 2003, was translated by Edith Grossman, noted translator of numerous Latin American writers, ranging from Nobel and Neustadt laureate Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia) to Myra Montero (Cuba/Puerto Rico).
Antonio Muñoz Molina (b. 1956, Úbeda, Jaén) has written thirteen novels, including Sefarad (1991; the title in Hebrew means “Spain”), the English translation of which, Sepharad, won the 2004 pen Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize (Margaret Sayers Peden, tr.) as well as Beatus Ile (1986), El invierno de Lisboa (1987), Beltenebros (1989), El jinete polaco (1991), Los misterios de Madrid (1992), El dueño del secreto (1994), and Plenilunio (1997). His most recent novel is Ventanas de Manhattan (2004). Among his numerous awards are Spain’s Premio de la Crítica (1987), Premio Nacional de Narrativa (1988, 1992), and Premio Planeta (1991). In 1995 he became the youngest person ever elected to the Real Academia Española. Currently, Muñoz Molina serves as the director of the Instituto Cervantes (www.cervantes.org) in New York City and is married to Spanish writer Elvira Lindo, whose recent novel Una palabra tuya received Spain’s coveted Premio Biblioteca Breve for 2004.
“From the September-December 2005 issue of World Literature Today (79:3-4), pages 33-34. Copyright © 2005 World Literature Today.”