Don Quixote is the first modern novel. But who wrote it? In the preface, the narrator states, “though I seem to be the father [I am] but the step-father of Don Quixote” (15). He has compiled and translated a book, we learn, written mostly by Cid Hamet Ben Engeli, “Arabian historiographer” (68), who gathered his material from various sources.
A reader assumes the unnamed narrator is Cervantes, yet throughout the book there are metafictional references which suggest that he is not. Don Quixote’s niece and a helpful priest are going through Quixote’s books in order to identify and burn the books on chivalry which drove him mad. Although they come across Galatea by Miguel de Cervantes, the narrator does not acknowledge it as his own. Not surprisingly, however, the work is spared the purging fire and the narrator adds a brief critique of the work and a little plug for the sequel: “His book has somewhat of good invention in it; he proposes something, but concludes nothing: we must wait for the second part which he promises” (53). In the meantime, until the second half appears, Cervantes’ book gets a partial pardon. (The second half was never completed.) In chapter 47 the innkeeper and priest find a story entitled “Rinconete and Cortadillo” in an old trunk. The narrator, without naming Cervantes, writes that the “Curious Impertinent” by the same author was a good book, so this one must be so too. Since the narrator is not aware of who Cervantes is, we can assume that the narrator is not Cervantes.
In chapter eight, the narrator distinguishes himself from the Moorish author. Don Quixote is about to fight a Biscainer (somebody from the region of Biscay), their swords are drawn, when– We are abruptly told, “But the misfortune is that the author of this history, in this very crisis, leaves the combat unfinished, excusing himself that he could find no more written of these exploits of Don Quixote than what he has already related” (66). In chapter nine we clearly hear the voice of the translator, “This grieved me extremely” (66). He goes onto write, “It seemed to me impossible and quite beside all laudable custom, that so accomplished a knight should want a sage to undertake the penning his unparalleled exploits, a circumstance” (66-67). The narrator then blames the loss of certain portions of the story on the malignanty of time “which either kept it concealed or had destroyed it” (67).
Yet he searches all over La Mancha for pieces of the story of the famous knight-errant. Eventually, the narrator finds the remainder of the story in Toledo. A street vendor, a young boy with an armload of old manuscripts, approaches him; the translator recognizes Arabic letters, so he purchases the manuscript and takes it to a “Moorish rabbi” (68). The “rabbi” begins to laugh at something in the margin: “‘This Dulcinea del Toboso, so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand at salting pork of any woman in La Mancha'” (68). Our delighted narrator recognizes the name of Don Quixote’s lady and therefore the history of Don Quixote.
Thus, the narrator claims a small share of Don Quixote’s immortal memory and praise because of the pains he took to discover the end of the encounter with the Biscainer. Through his narrator, Cervantes also claims immortal praise. The path of glory then leads from Don Quixote, to his early chroniclers, through Cid Hamet Ben Engeli, to the translator and narrator and finally, somewhere hidden behind all these many authors, Cervantes himself.
Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
For more on Don Quixote, see my posts How to Sound like an Author of Great Reading, Learning and Eloquence: A Quixotic Preface and Don Quijote: The Impossible Truth.