Don Quixote. The “True” Story.

One of the first things we learn about Don Quixote in Part I, Chapter 1, is that after reading so many novels of chivalry he comes to believe that all the fictitious events he has read about are true and historically accurate: “so embedded in his imagination was the belief that all those resounding fictions he read were true, that for him no history in the world was more authentic.”

But Don Quixote is not the only character to believe in the historical accuracy of romances of chivalry. Another is the illiterate Juan Palomeque, owner of the inn where several important characters in Part I meet. Responding to the priest’s attack on novels of chivalry as simply fiction for entertainment and that their heroes never existed, the innkeeper passionately defends the truth of such books and calls on the authority of the Royal Council to buttress his argument. “As if,” he concludes “they [i.e. members of the Council] were people who would allow all those lies to be published, with all those battles and enchantments which drive you out of your mind” (Part I, 32). The priest insists on their entertainment value and their publication is allowed only, he believes, because “there can’t be anyone so ignorant as to think that any of these books is a true history.”

Verdadera historia (“True history“) is an expression that recurs on numerous occasions in Don Quixote, mostly referring to Don Quixote himself, although occasionally alluding to historical individuals (e.g. Part I, 32 the true story of the historical Gonzalo Hernández de Córdoba).

But who was Don Quixote and by what authority can his “history” be called verdadera?  At the very beginning we are informed that he was a minor noble from a village in La Mancha, that he owned a lance, an ancient shield, an emaciated nag and a fast greyhound. He ate modestly: stew, hash most nights, bacon and eggs on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays and some pigeon as well on Sundays. And so on.

But who exactly is it who tells us this? Cervantes informs us in the Prologue that he is not the “father” of the work but the “stepfather.”  This distancing device was commonly used by authors of romances of chivalry. They claimed that their texts were translations of ancient texts written in a foreign tongue (e.g. Greek, Latin, Arabic) and discovered under unusual circumstances.

Such provenance was intended to give their works the air of historical authority and truthfulness. What Cervantes does is adopt this device, not merely to parody but to question the truthfulness of any work that claimed to be a verdadera historia.

In Part I, Chapters 1 and 2, an unidentified narrator (“I” – Yo) informs us that all these matters relating to Don Quixote have been extracted from the Archives of La Mancha.  From what the narrator says, several writers penned something about Don Quixote, but were not always in agreement.  For example, there was discrepancy over Don Quixote’s real surname, with “the authors of this verdadera historia’ concluding that he must have been called Quijada and not Quesada nor Quejana (Part I, 1. To complicate matters further, a neighbour in Chapter 5 calls him Quijana!)**.  They didn’t agree over Don Quixote first adventure:  did it take place in Puerto Lápice or was it the episode of the windmills? This uncertainty paradoxically confirms Don Quixote’s “life” in that no one denies his existence.

**Don Quixote’s real name, it seems, is Alonso Quijano. But this we find out only in the last chapter of the book,Part II, 74, when Don Quixote himself renounces his adopted name: “I am no longer Don Quixote from La Mancha but Alonso Quijano…

Of course, all this is a parody of the novelistic procedure in romances of chivalry, but it is also a serious questioning of textual transmission.  This strikes at the heart of truth claims in history and literature. Cervantes explores these claims more directly following a fight between Don Quixote and a Basque gentleman (Part I, 8) which is suddenly interrupted in mid action, with the startling revelation that the “author” could not find any more written about Don Quixote!

In Chapter 9, the unidentified “I” describes how he bought a notebook written in Arabic while wandering through a market street in Toledo. After finding a Morisco (Moriscos: Muslim converts to Christianity or their descendants) to translate it for him into Spanish  “without adding or taking away anything,” he learnt to his delight that the notebook contained the story of Don Quixote written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian. The interrupted fight with the Biscayan gentleman now continues. From this point on, then, we are ostensibly reading a translation.

Translations, however, are unreliable and inevitably distort to some degree the original. In English, we say “there’s something lost in the translation;” Italian has a more graphic phrase: Traduttore, traditore,Translator, traitor” (Johnson 81).  Still, the Morisco translator promised to translate the notebook “well and faithfully” (Part I, 9) but is this so? Evidently not because we read, for example, in In Part II, 18, that the translator omitted details about Don Quixote’s visit to Don Diego de Miranda’s house because “they weren’t relevant to the main aim of the story.”

Later, at the beginning of Chapter 24, Part II, the translator questions Cide Hamete’s comments about Don Quixote’s descent into the Cave of Montesinos; Chapter 44, Part II, opens with the observation that the translator did not translate the chapter as Cide Hamete Benengeli had written it.  Clearly, such editing or comments on the part of the Morisco translator undermines any notion of a verdadera historia of Don Quixote’s adventures.

And what about Cide Hamete Benengeli himself?  We are told that he is an historian, but also an Arab-speaking Moor (Part II, 27,  II, 53) and “it is very typical of members of that race to be liars.” (Part I, 9). But he is also sabio (“learned” (Part I, 15), “very accurate in everything” (Part I, 16), a “trustworthy author” (Part I, 52), and “meticulous investigator of the details of this verdadera historia” (Part II, 50).

These contradictions are undoubtedly intentional, underlining the unstable nature of the text: is everything we read about Don Quixote a fiction or is it historically accurate?  (It is in fact a combination: Don Quixote is a fictional character who travels in realistic and historically identifiable places, even meeting with and talking to a contemporary historical figure (Roque Guinart, Part II, 60).

Finally, who is the unidentified narrator (“I”)?  The text we read has been transcribed by him, but we know nothing about him.  All we can say is that he is the final contributor to at least four levels of textual transmission: 1. The Archives of La Mancha containing versions by more than one author; 2. Cide Hamete Benengeli’s notebook in Arabic; 3. The Morisco translator; 4. The unidentified narrator. 

Anyone who has played the popular party game “Broken Telephone” (whereby a message, whispered in turn by several people, ends up considerably changed) understands the technique employed by Cervantes. How can there be a true or definitive story if it has passed through several mouths? This suggests that Cervantes believed any claim to truth is doomed to failure, and that all histories are to a greater or lesser degree fictions, or stories. That is what the “history” of Don Quixote is in fact:  a story.
Cervantes’s critique of verdaderas historias comes at a time when the writing of pseudo histories claiming to be true histories was in vogue. For example, in 1589, Miguel de Luna published his Historia verdadera del rey don Rodrigo (The True History of King Rodrigo). Luna interestingly was a Morisco, and his work is not a true history but a highly fictional version of the legend of Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king who disappeared in 711 following his defeat by invading Muslim forces

According to Luna, the work was composed in the 8th century by the “learned” (sabio) Albucacim Tarif, who claimed to have written “without any invention … and with truth the history … of the war of Spain” (Wardropper 9b). Luna offered himself merely as the translator!

In 1595, Ginés Pérez de Hita published the first part of his Guerras civiles de Granada (Civil Wars of Granada), entitled Historia de los bandos de Zegríes y Abencerrajes (History of the Factions of the Zegríes and Abencerrajes).  Pérez presents his work as a translation into Castilian of an Arabic work penned by a certain Aben Hamin, witness (autor de vista) to the events described. Such authoritative provenance —-the “learned” Albucacim Tarif and the “witness” Aben Hamin—endowed their works with authority and historicity.

It is tempting to think that Cervantes may have had such false “true histories” in mind when he attacked the authority enjoyed by novels of chivalry in his Prologue to Don Quixote. The problem was not only that these false histories purported to be true, but the fact that they were widely accepted as authentic.  In this sense, Don Quixote’s belief in the historicity of romances of chivalry may also point to the gullibility of those who accepted these contemporary false histories as true.

To these false histories, we can add another form of pseudo history that enjoyed wide currency in the early 17th century: the picaresque autobiography, a form that Cervantes critiqued in his short story El coloquio de los perros (The Conversation of the Dogs) and elsewhere. Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I, 1599, Part II 1604) was a best seller, but it would be a mistake to see this first-person narrative as anything but fiction. Following Guzmán, a number of fictional autobiographies were published, some imitating it some reacting to it, but all trying to give the illusion that they were true life stories. But the fictional nature of autobiographies –via bias, omissions, lies etc.– was well summarised by Francisco López de Ubeda, author of La pícara Justina (1605): El que cuenta vida propia está a pique de mentir (“He who narrates his own life is close to lying”).

Close, Anthony in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature ed. David T Gies, Cambridge 2009, pp. 201-21
Gerli, Michael in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature ed. David T Gies, Cambridge 2009, pp. 178-200
Johnson, Carroll B Don Quixote: The Quest for Modern Fiction Boston 1990
Labanyi, Jo  Spanish Literature: A Very Short Introduction  Oxford 2010
Wardropper, Bruce  “Don Quixote: Story or History,” Modern Philology LXIII (1965), 1-11.

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