Saturday, September 29, 2007

Today in 1547 Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote, was born in Alcala de Henares, a small town close to Madrid. He was the fourth of seven children in a family of minor nobility. Cervantes spent much of his youth moving from town to town with his family. In 1569 he made his literary debut by publishing some verse in a collection edited by Lopez de Hoyas on the occasion of the death of Isabel de Valois, second Queen of Phillip II of Spain. In this year he left Spain for Italy where he served as chamberlain in the household of Cardinal Guilio Acquaviva in Rome. one theory has it that Cervantes was escaping from the law in his exit from Spain because of his involvement in a duel. . By 1570 Cervantes had enlisted in a Castillian infantry regiment stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish Crown. The next year he took part in the battle of Lepanto where the combined fleets of central Europe defeated the armada of the Ottoman Empire. In this engagement he was wounded three times by gunfire. One of the wounds crippled his left hand for life.

After Lepanto Cervantes remained in hospital for almost six months. He rejoined the Spanish infantry and served in Naples until 1575. In September of 1575 he was on board a vessel bound for Catalonia which was attacked by Algerian corsairs. He was taken prisoner and spent the next 5 years as a slave in Algiers until he was ransomed by his parents and the Trinitarian Order. Back in Spain he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584 and took on a number of minor bureaucratic jobs as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada and later as a tax collector. In 1585 he published his first major work La Galatea and also several plays that attracted little notice except for El Trato de Argel and La Numancia.

Cervantes proved to be even more dishonest than the average Spanish government official. Either that or he was extraordinarily foolish or unlucky enough to get caught because he was sentenced to prison for diddling the accounts that he was responsible for as a tax collector. Or perhaps he was simply loose lipped. According to the prologue of Don Quixote the idea of his great novel first occurred to him while he was serving his time at Argamasilla de Alba in La Mancha. His genius was to give a picture of real life and manners and to express himself in everyday speech. Cervantes remained dirt poor and rather dodgy until 1605 when Part 1 of Don Quixote was first published to great international acclaim. It even led to a plagiaristic sequel by an unknown author who went by the pen name of Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. In reply Cervantes wrote Don Quixote Part II which was published in 1615. The second part of the book is considerably less comic than the first, but it has its admirers.

Cervantes died in Madrid on April 23, 1616, the same day that Shakespeare died. This has led UNESCO to declare April 23td the 'International day of the Book'. There is actually some dispute about this date because it is the date on his tombstone which the Encyclopedia Hispanica claims would have been the date of his burial rather than his death. The coincidence of the two deaths has also led the famous Mexican author Carlos Fuentes to speculate that Cervantes and Shakespeare were actually the same person. In this Fuentes has added his little theory to the almost endless academic industry of the "hidden author of Shakespeare", for which there are over 60 candidates. Cervantes is one of the more outre. There is also some speculation on Cervantes himself, but most of it revolves around his ancestry. The first English translation of Don Quixote was made in 1608 by Thomas Shelton, but this wasn't published until 1612. Shakespeare evidently read Don Quixote, but it is very unlikely that Cervantes was ever aware of Shakespeare's existence. A rather extreme academic, Francis Carr, has suggested that Francis Bacon wrote both Shakespeare's plays and Don Quixote. To say the least this theory has little credibility.

Don Quixote has been recognized as one of the great works of world literature. It has been translated into almost all modern languages. In Spain today every city that has even the slightest connection with Cervantes attempts to claim him as their own. Molly can remember one "conversation"- no... Molly was an audience rather than a participant- in Granada, Espana some years back. I was taking a picture of the statue dedicated to Cervantes in one of the plazas and fell into conversation with one of the locals. It was one thing to hear that Cervantes was both the greatest and most famous writer ever born. It was another to hear nonsense about how deeply connected he was to Granada. Lots of "si,si sis" in that conversation from Molly's side. None of the other works of Cervantes, good as they are, has achieved the fame of this novel.

To see more about Miguel Cervantes see:

Miguel Cervantes at Online Literature (has the text of Don Quixote available)

Works by Miguel Cervantes at Project Guttenberg http://www, (also has Don Quixote online)

The Wikipedia Article on Cervantes

The Cervantes Project (has the complete works of Cervantes in Spanish)

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