Good news! All 940 pages of Don Quixote have hereby been defeated. And, having emerged from it, I would say to all prospective readers that you should probably not do what I did and read the whole thing at once, because you will end up feeling like if you ever have to hear about another lovestruck cross-dressing shepherd again it will be TOO SOON, and that is a truly sad thing to think.
But, putting aside the fact that I probably prejudiced myself against it slightly by not taking a break half way through, I still can't quite decide how I feel about it. Every time I was just about to decide that it was totally great, it suddenly became completely awful, and then went back to being great again (this was roughly linked to how much philosophical thought the characters happened to be engaging in at the time).
I will not talk about the philosophy too much, for it brings me great pain, but the rest of the book is essentially the jolliest of romps through 17th Century Spain, which is absolutely heaving with Moors, dukes, priests, farmers, bandits and peasants, all of whom are, confusingly, dressed up as someone else. The largest section of society, going by the number of encounters Don Quixote has with them, are young rich people pretending to be shepherds. These seem to be the17th-Century equivalent of hipsters. They emerge from behind every rock and tree, all of them enthusiastically being crossed in love, which involves singing rhyming love songs and bewailing their fate at excruciating length. They are one of the less great things about Don Quixote. Things really slow down, in fact, every time a wealthy or high-born person appears, and then get going again each time there are peasants. The peasants are great. They make rude jokes and get indignant about not being paid for things and tell Don Quixote in no uncertain terms that they think he is being a crazy asshole.
As far as plot goes, it is the story of an old country land owner who reads a lot of chivalric fiction, has a heavy mid-life crisis, decides to become a knight errant, and goes around imagining that he is a great knight, his shitty old horse is a trusty steed and a peasant wench from the next village is his peerless lady love. He hires Sancho Panza, an incredibly mouthy peasant, to be his squire, and then they travel around the countryside trying to have courtly adventures and being totally thwarted by the fact that people don't actually behave the way they do in chivalric tales.
At one point, for example, Don Quixote comes across a chain gang of convicts on their way to a prison ship, and because he's got a bee in his bonnet about helping the needy and behaving with honour, he decides to let them all go free so they can have a second chance to be better. Except that what the freed convicts promptly do on being given their freedom is beat him up, steal his money and Sancho's donkey and then leg it for the hills to become bandits. I'd really like anyone who thinks that realistic characterisation is modern to take a look at Don Quixote, because I'm fairly sure it gets human nature down a lot better than a significant percentage of the books written in the last twenty years.
It's actually slightly bewildering to think that the whole thing was finished by 1615, since Cervantes does things that I'm pretty sure Martin Amis thinks he made up. In the first part, Cervantes pretends to be his own translator and then appears in the text as the friend of one of the characters, and the entire second half supposes that the whole of Spain has read Don Quixote Part I and become massive Don Quixote fans, so whenever Don Quixote introduces himself people get hugely excited and then play pranks on him to see if he's really as crazy as the book says he is. I cannot convey how insanely meta the whole thing is.
Possibly the best thing to have come out of this whole escapade, though, is that I finally understand exactly what quixotic actually means. For years I have been coming across this word and being completely puzzled by it, but too afraid to ask in case it was an intelligence test that I was horribly failing, and there was a room somewhere where all the really clever people were hanging out together, calling each other quixotic and sniggering at my ignorance. But now, thank Christ, I finally get it, and I am hereby going to explain it so we are all saved from the misery of not knowing what quixotic means.
Picture the scene:
You hear the sound of hooves in the distance. Assuming it is your enemies, you pull out your sword and stand there as bravely as possible, prepared to fight to the death. Only what comes around the corner is not a horde of enemies at all, but a swarm of pigs. And instead of realising your mistake and standing down, you just go on standing there, challenging those pigs to a fight, until they reach you and knock you over and stamp their little trotters all over your face. And that is being quixotic.
The above episode actually happens in Don Quixote, by the way, and is one of the reasons why it is such a great book. It's really difficult to describe humour in a review, but Don Quixote is genuinely one of the funniest things I've read in quite a while. All the way through all the ridiculous farcical things that happen to him, Don Quixote stays totally sure that what he is having is an Incredibly Serious Adventure. The effect generated is therefore similar to watching a cat walking across a shiny wood table while wearing knitted booties. Don Quixote! Riding across the countryside on his horse Crap Horse with his sidekick Mr. Fatty! (I am, by the way, not kidding - these are apparently rough translations of Rocinante and Sancho Panza.) Saving the people of Spain from small children, pigs and suspicious-looking priests! What a hero.