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A windmill I won't tilt at

Simon Jenkins

It is the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, a more important work than all of Einstein's theories

A PICTURE of a battered warrior sits on my desk. I found it in a Bloomsbury print shop many years ago. He sits thin and sad on an ass, his helmet broken, his armour gone. He arrives home late at night to be greeted with joy and relief by his loving household. He has returned from knight errantry, to recover his reason and die. He is my icon. This month we celebrate two anniversaries. One is of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905), a great work of Western civilisation. The other is Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605), also a great work of Western civilisation. The first is greeted with BBC specials, colour supplements, postage stamps and a United Nations Year of Physics. The other, at least outside Spain, is being ignored. Which merits the bigger salute?

I have no quarrel with Einstein. The mobsters of Big Science have declared him master of the Universe. His brain was measured and his shoes embalmed. Women wrote him letters wanting to have his babies. His thoughts are installed in Newton’s temple and not found wanting. Einstein is cool.

But if Einstein had not existed, physics would sooner or later have invented him. I am sure of that. His theory of relativity was an understanding of nature. It lay over the cosmic horizon, awaiting discovery by the first genius to pass its way. Einstein was its Columbus.

Not so Miguel de Cervantes. He surveyed the landscape of post-medieval Europe and asked, but where is Man? He grasped at valour, love, loyalty, triumph and mortification and, like his contemporary, Shakespeare, compressed them in a human frame. He told a tale like no other man. If Cervantes had not existed, he could not have been invented. There would be a hole in the tapestry of Europe.

Few English people read Don Quixote, probably because they think they know it already. We have heard of his fantasies and ordeals, of his poor horse and loyal squire, Sancho Panza, “not rich but well-flogged”. We know of the tilting at windmills and ludicrous deeds to impress his yearning for the matchless Dulcinea del Toboso. The man is mad and not of our time.

That is not the half of it. In 1605 there was also the publication of the full text of Hamlet. Quixote and Hamlet are often compared, though rarely by the chauvinist British. They share ghosts and demons, passion and honour, and they use plays within plays as metaphors. They both lead us over the bridge from the Middle Ages to introspection and the modern era. But Quixote is the more inventive, funnier, sadder, the loftier mind and the better conversationalist. His dialogues with Sancho, the knightly believer and the doubting servant, are among the most enchanting in literature.

Cervantes lived his character. He fought the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, the culminating struggle of medieval Europe. He lost his left hand, was enslaved in Africa and imprisoned in Spain. His plays were failures. His life was a mess. Yet in just a few months of 1605 he wrote a book which soared beyond its time.

The two parts of Don Quixote are as different as thesis and antithesis. The Don of the first part is the true fantasist, sated on fusty old texts. He sets out to re-enact the rules of chivalry, to defend justice and love in a sinful world. He battles with windmills, sheep and innkeepers’ daughters. In his great essay on the Don, Carlos Fuentes talks of “art giving life to what history has killed”.

Part II breaks step with the past. The Don hears tell of his own exploits, indeed of his own book. Already he has chastised Sancho for thinking him unaware that Dulcinea is not a great beauty. He knows that she is a vulgar village girl, but she is the nobler for it. “Come Sancho,” he cries, “it is enough for me to think her beautiful and virtuous . . . I paint her in my imagination as I desire her.” A million Spanish women cheer. We are no longer sure who is poking fun at whom. Who are we to legislate between dream and reality? We are players and audience alike in the charade.

Hence the Don leaps up from a puppet show and decapitates the model soldiers, to stop them arresting a lover and his princess as they escape to freedom. He then richly compensates the puppeteer for this “debt of honour”. In the last chapter comes the final synthesis. The dying Quixote renounces the “dark shadows of ignorance” that came from reading “my detestable books on chivalry”. He regrets only that he has no time to read “other books that can be a light to the soul”.

Don Quixote is supposedly the most popular novel in history. The Don was worshipped by Sterne, Goethe, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Melville. Two years ago his saga was voted the best novel of all time by the world’s “hundred top writers”.

Millions have come to regard Quixote as a friend for life. Like Cervantes, they have slaved in the galleys at Lepanto and emerged with only their dreams to live for. Like Quixote they have hoped beyond hope and loved beyond love. All of us sometimes see windmills as giants, and giants as windmills. Everyone has a knight errant within them, guiding his lance and turning the most humble career into a noble crusade. Like Quixote we long to leap on life’s stage, to warm Mimi’s frozen hand or stay Othello’s dagger. We imagine that frump in the Tube as the matchless Dulcinea, at least until Tottenham Court Road.

Somehow I shall survive without Einstein. I can drive spaceship Earth without knowing the workings of the atom. But I cannot do without my icon. I raise my glass to the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, Don Quixote of La Mancha, as he trots across the plain of life in search of self-fulfilment. He knew that reason would triumph, but he also knew that reason was not enough. Quixote’s epitaph ran: “It was his great good fortune to live a madman and die sane.” Amen to that.