summary of ten quixotes

Ten Quixotes

The Ingenious Gentlemen of Turkish Novels

Taking the heroes of chivalry books as his model, good hearted Alonso Quijano hits the road. This is the theme of Cervantes’ lengthy novel, and not a sentence more. The transformation of Alonso Quijano to Don Quixote is brought about by ‘mimetic desire’. A burlesque imitation of the imaginary heroes in books, Don Quixote picks as his lover a woman named Dulcinea del Toboso, who does not exist in reality, and for lack of means available to fictitious chivalry, he sets out as a knight-errant accompanied only by his haggard horse Rocinante and peasant Sancho appointed as his squire. He has belief in himself and his ideal; ‘…and so, friend Sancho, waste no time in advising me against so rare, so happy, and so unheard-of an imitation.1

It is due to this imitation that Don Quixote is esteemed to be the ‘first novel’. Although hundreds of adventure and chivalry books were written before, it was Don Quixote that was deemed worthy of this rank in the history of novels. This is because its text reflects on novel theory itself. Through Don Quixote who is obsessed with chivalry books, Cervantes makes a mockery of all books on chivalry written before him. These books, which gained more public popularity as they tallied knights’ unlikely adventures and gallant love affairs one after the other, are criticized through the bookish utterings and the realistic clumsiness of gullible Don Quixote, who borders on insanity, takes dust clouds for rival armies and attacks a flock of sheep perceiving them to be his enemies. In the end, while satirizing linearly constructed, easy-to-read, enthralling adventure books full of oratory and heroism, Cervantes builds his own novel in the exact opposite direction. At places he breaks and tears the text, adds structural pauses in between its parts; numerous techniques dubbed postmodernist today, already exist in Cervantes’ novel from 1605. Above all, Don Quixote is a text with a metafiction. According to the narrator of the novel, the story of Don Quixote is written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Moorish author but we the readers read it through the rendition of a translator even with translator’s notes he jotted here and there. Moreover, Cervantes includes himself in the novel. The curate character criticises Cervantes’ romance La Galatea; ‘That Cervantes has been for many years a great friend of mine, and to my knowledge he has had more experience in reverses than in verses. His book has some good invention in it, it presents us with something but brings nothing to a conclusion.2

These characteristics of course fall short of making Don Quixote a postmodern novel; they just underline the vanity of novels that rest solely on postmodern techniques. Don Quixote’s function is to provide an entrance to the historical course of the novel. Cervantes has left us a legacy, whose main element is humour through parody and satire; although at the very end, Don Quixote becomes aware of his insanity, through the length of the novel he is an otherworldly, gullible and goofy wanderer. In his relationships with Sancho Panza or other characters in the novel, he displays a jocular ‘lack of self’. Unaware of its ridiculousness, he finds a noble explanation for each of his actions. The legacy we have inherited is this – the first social comedy of history. After Cervantes, this legacy, which in its essence always entails an existential humour, has been carried over to us by the likes of Diderot, Fielding, Sterne, Melville, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Goncharov, Kafka, Musil, Joyce, Beckett, Frisch, Fowles, Calvino, Kundera and Cortazar. Authors that contribute to this legacy take their place in the history of novels. As Kundera indicates; ‘the value of a novel can only be comprehended within the framework of the history of novels. The novelist does not owe an explanation to anyone other than Cervantes.’3

It can be said that Turkish literature was quite late in discovering this legacy of Spanish origin that influenced the whole world, and hence the literary form of the novel. Despite this late discovery, especially in the 20th century, the Turkish novel has produced a considerable number of worthy literary works. Some of these were welcomed at the time of their publishing, some were appreciated decades later and others still await their readers