La Zona Fantasma: Run, Cervantes, Run!

La Zona Fantasma: Run, Cervantes, Run!

Javier Marías
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During his lifetime, Miguel de Cervantes was the victim of one of the most infuriating offenses known to writers: the appropriation of his characters by another person, the unwarranted manipulation of his inventions, the desecration of his creation. As many people may already know, an apocryphal Part Two of The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha appeared on the Spanish scene in 1614, signed by someone who called himself Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, though his true identity continues to elude us to this day. There is little doubt, however, that Cervantes knew perfectly well who hid behind the mask of Avellaneda, and yet he refused to do him the honor of revealing his identity, for that would only have allowed the charlatan to enter into posterity. Instead Cervantes merely alluded to him, crestfallen but blasé, in the prologue to the real Part Two of his great novel, which was published a year later, in 1615. One wonders if Cervantes felt inspired to finish it posthaste just to set the record straight regarding Avellaneda’s theft and chicanery, because on top of mucking around with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Avellaneda also attacked their creator, calling him an old one-armed fool. As it turns out, he was only a precursor to the contemporary copycat, a figure we are all familiar with: the more they imitate and exploit someone else’s achievements, the more they attack and silence him. It must be an insufferable feeling to know that you have so great a debt to someone whose talents are so vastly superior to your own.

The year 2005 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Part One of Don Quixote, but the great commemorators were already running around like mad far before the year in question, to such an extent that by the time 2005 is over, we may find ourselves so bloated from the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza feeding frenzy that we may end up despising them. After all, as Cervantes himself said in the aforementioned prologue, “the abundance of things, albeit good things, makes people appreciate them less.” And for this reason, specifically so that nobody in the future could commit any more “Avellanedisms,” Cervantes made sure to leave Don Quixote “dead and buried, so that no one will dare tell any more stories about him since we already have enough of them as it is.”

Despite that very maddening incident of 1614, the celebration of this anniversary has become a pretext for the onslaught of a whole spate of newfangled Avellanedas, who feel no qualms or scruples about prolonging the existence of the Cervantes characters that are still alive today.“I know the temptations of the Devil all too well,” wrote Cervantes in the same prologue,“and I also know that among the greatest of them all is that of making a man believe he can compose and publish a book that may earn him as much fame as money, and as much money as fame.” Four hundred years later, everyone from the most exalted writers to the most contemptible politicians, not to mention professors, intellectuals, and all sorts of experts (real or imagined), is taking his or her place in the very long shadow cast by the Knight of the Sad Figure, in the interest of earning whatever fame and money her or she can from it. Don Quixote has been so intensely stroked and groped by them that it will be a miracle if, after ten years, the author and his work have been wiped clean of the goo that they have smeared on him this year.

One of the most damning aspects of our modern age is that we often seem to accept certain phenomena as “normal” or “acceptable” when precisely the opposite is true. Last year, for example, the president of the city of Madrid very proudly announced that her municipality had organized 400 Don Quixote “activities” for 2005. Four hundred: in other words, there will be more Cervantine activities than days in this ill-begotten year.As if such a spectacle could possibly have any real meaning.

As if there even existed an audience capable of swallowing such a heap of cloying nonsense.As if they could even come up with 400 activities of any interest. Incredibly, however, shortly after this announcement the president of the autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha announced that in his sphere of influence they would be organizing 2,005 “cultural activities” revolving around the topic, which demonstrates a level of stupidity five times greater than that of the president of Madrid. Can you even begin to imagine the legions of consultants, promoters, advisers and fast-talkers racking their brains to come up with that much content—or rather, that much drivel—to fulfill their pretentious purposes? I suppose that this will be their one and only task for these twelve long months, and I have no doubt that they have prepared some scintillating conferences on windmillology, and have spent and wasted plenty of money to this end, as well.

Taking a look at the prologue to Persiles, Cervantes’s personal favorite of all his books, it seems eminently clear that if the author of Don Quixote were to pay us a visit in the here and now (as an angel or a ghost, depending on your point of view), he would turn right around and head for the hills, horrified by all the slick attention being lavished upon his person. In this particular prologue, the author tells the story of how an old student from the village of Esquívias saw him walking down the street, recognized him, grabbed his left hand, and praised him in the following manner:

“Yes, yes!” the student cried. “This is the onearmed, brilliant man! The illustrious and marvelous writer who is the delight of the muses!”

Upon hearing this, the novelist responded by “giving him a big hug around the neck”so as not to be rude, and then added:

“That is an error that so many of my unenlightened admirers have made. I, sir, am Cervantes, not the delight of the muses, or any of the other foolish things you say I am.”

No, Cervantes suffered neither fools nor Avellanedas, but it seems that our modern-day marketeers and sweet-talkers could care less.

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

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