His major work, Don Quijote, is considered to be the first modern European novel, and is regarded amongst the
best works of fiction ever written. His influence on the Spanish language has been so great that the language is often called la lengua de Cervantes.
The first literary works by Cervantes appear in 1569, when he published some poetry to a memorial collection after the death of Elisabeth of Valois, the wife of Spanish King Philip II. The following year he put down his pencils and picked up a weapon instead, joining a Spanish military unit in Italy. Known for his bravery, Cervantes decided to join the Spanish fleet in 1571, taking part in the battle of Lepanto between the catholic states and the Ottomans for the control of the Mediterranean. Cervantes was wounded in the battle, losing the use of his left hand, which is why he became known as el Manco de Lepanto (the one-handed man of Lepanto).
A few years later, Cervantes was taken prisoner from a ship on his way back home. He spent some years in slavery and misery. Upon his return to Madrid in 1580, he supported himself with several low-paying jobs. After his marriage in 1584 to the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, he took up writing again. Cervantes also obtained a job in the government as a tax collector.
He was imprisoned several times on charges of bankruptcy and fiscal irregularities. He lived in Seville between 1595 and 1600. After moving to Madrid, he published the first part of Don Quijote in 1605. The novel is largely based on his own adventurous life, telling the story of an elderly man who becomes so obsessed by old stories of brave knights that he seeks out his own adventures.
The hero soon gets lost in his own fantasy world, believing he is one of these knights. He convinces a poor peasant, Sancho Panza to be his squire. In one famous scene Don Quijote even fights a windmill. The story ends happily in that the hero finally regains his senses.
The novel became the world’s first bestseller, being translated into more than 60 languages. The second part of the story was published in 1615.
On April 21st 2016, to commemorate the 400 year jubilee, Miguel de Cervantes climbed down from his pedestal in front of the House of Congress to claim the podium inside the house, impersonated by the actor Manuel Tallafe. He was accompanied by his brave knight Don Quijote, whom he proposed as new President. The performance was carried out with music, humour, irony and a lot of emotion. Pieces from Burlesque of Quijote were played.
The congress had an unforgettable Monday session. The public consisted of invited guests from the world of culture and entertainment as well as a bunch of enthusiastic schoolchildren. On the TV transmission I saw the faces of Pedro Sanchez, Albert Rivera, Patxi Lopez, Pablo Iglesias, among other actors in the modern drama of creating a government. Mostly grave faces in this group.
Cervantes lamented the slowness of the government proceedings, recalling that he had written his Quijote in a few days, whereas the Spanish politicians haven’t been able to reach an agreement in over three months. He then proposed to create a hashtag on Twitter for “Don Quijote president”. This was so witty and hilarious. Made you feel good, after all we have seen and heard from that house during the last months.
The other day, I took the first part of Don Quijote down from the bookshelf, to start my third reading of Cervantes’ masterpiece, hopefully with more reflection than I could muster decades ago