“Don Quixote as the First Crime Novel” (by Sheila Kohler)

Sheila Kohler, who has written two previous posts here, is an acclaimed novelist and winner of the O’Henry Prize, the Open Fiction Award, the Willa Cather Prize, and the Smart Family Foundation Prize. She is the author of over a dozen books; the most recent, out earlier this month from Penguin, is the thriller Open Secrets. On July 9 and 14, the author had two virtual discussions about the novel, the first for Princeton with Joyce Carol Oates and the second with the Center for Fiction and author Sheridan Hay. We think you’ll enjoy those conversations as well as the following essay, in which she frames and examines Don Quixote as the first crime novel.—Janet Hutchings

Though little is known for certain about his life, it is probable that Cervantes first conceived his novel (and here I will talk about the first volume of Don Quixote, published in 1605) in a prison cell. Cervantes seems to have been incarcerated several times, once for fighting a duel and on more than one occasion for irregularities with money as a tax collector, as was his father, a lawyer who also had money problems and was imprisoned before him. For five years Cervantes was held by the Ottomans as a slave in Algiers (as is the captive in his book) and some believe he actually converted and became a Muslim. His long years in captivity perhaps gave him an interest in madness which such lengthy periods of solitude may have induced. Despite the instant success of his great book, he had constant problems with money; he never became rich and died the same year as Shakespeare in 1617 but in Cervantes’s case, despite the success of his book, a poor man.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that the beloved hero of his book, Don Quixote, is both a mad hidalgo and a criminal. Don Quixote follows what he conceives of as the laws of chivalry and his own imagination, which lead him to a life of adventure where he feels obliged to commit one illegal act after another: he does not pay for his lodging at the inn (knights don’t pay for their lodging, in his mind); he attacks innocent people like the friars who dressed in black he takes for magicians and the Basque, who he believes are embarked on kidnapping a lady in a carriage; he steals a barber’s bowl that the barber has put on his head for protection and shines gold in the sunlight, which the Don thinks is Mambrino’s magic helmet; he liberates a boy, Andres, who is being beaten by his master, who has probably committed the theft his master accuses him of; he frees criminals from their heavy chains, including one who is an author, and all the king’s subjects who have been tried and convicted for various crimes and are being taken to row as galley slaves, so that he is followed by Spain’s Holy Brotherhood who have a warrant out against him.

As in any good crime novel, and we think of course of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov or Highsmith’s Tom Ripley; we root for this clever criminal who is portrayed as a vulnerable man driven to his crimes at least partly by the harsh laws of the society in which he lives. Death hovers near all through the book: there is the dead man in his bier, and the lovesick Grisostomo who commits suicide, the husband Anselmo who drives himself and his best friend and wife to death, and at various points—one in a fight in the inn—the Don himself seems indeed to be dead. He is constantly endangering his life in order to kill what he takes for giants (the famous windmills) or sorcerers, guards, or nobles (Cardenio) who disagree with his interpretation of literature.

Thus we follow this crazy criminal, this man of fifty, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, who has lost several teeth in one of his battles but rides on valiantly on his ancient nag, with his squire, Sancho Panza at his side. Sancho Panza, in contrast to his idealistic master, thinks mostly about the duchy he hopes to gain, the food in his saddlebags, and the wine he will imbibe at the inn. Money, food, and ambition are thus brought in to anchor the story in the real.

Like so many of us, the Don is moved to commit these acts of criminality in an effort to right the wrongs of the harsh and unjust world he lives in, Spain of the sixteenth century. He attempts to copy the deeds of the heroes in the many books of chivalry he has devoured with such passion, just as we are influenced surely by the characters in books we have loved. In his madness and his remarkably reasonable speeches on, for example, the advantages of a life of learning versus one given to political action, we often find much truth, and Cervantes uses this mad criminal to show up the madness and evil of the world around him, the lies and madness of others. The Don has many doppelgangers who are all almost equally mad: Cardenio, half-mad with love; Anselmo, driven by a perverse curiosity to find out if his wife is faithful to him; the inn keeper, who loves the books of chivalry too, and even the priest and the barber who lie baldly and trick the Don in order to cage him and take him home.

We are moved by this deluded man on his horse, Rocinante, who is made fun of by those around him, tricked by the women to put his hand into a slit of a window and tied there to hang for hours. With them we are both moved to laugh at the Don’s high-flown and ridiculous discourse, his archaic speech and actions which are contrasted so wonderfully with Sancho’s down-to-earth conversation and ideas, but at the same time we respond with sympathy to the Don’s good intentions, his desire to bring fame and glory to his lady love Dulcinea, his efforts to help the women, like Dorothea who he believes is the Princess Micomicoma, and anyone less fortunate then he. Because of his interest in the downtrodden—the criminals, the prostitutes, and the peasant women whom he sees as damsels in distress—we identify with his good heart, his attempts to bring peace to the weary, to free the enchained and to succor those who need the strength of his arm.

Thus this novel, published more than four hundred years ago, Don Quixote, seems to possess within its pages the two opposing poles of a good crime novel, verisimilitude, with the humor of the Don’s juxtaposition with his down-to-earth squire, who thinks of food and money and position; the precise historical details of the captive’s life in the prison in Algiers, based on Cervantes’s own; and simultaneously all the excitement and suspense of a novel of crime, all the forward movement of a glorious fairy tale, the mystery of the unidentified strangers, those masked or veiled, whom the Don meets on his way; the repetition and reversals of characters who come and go and tell their fascinating but oft-interrupted tales, and all their changes of fortune; the love affairs, which end well or badly—and at the same time a deeper emotional truth which is so brilliantly portrayed.

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1 Response to “Don Quixote as the First Crime Novel” (by Sheila Kohler)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    A fascinating post, Sheila — though the editor in me thinks you may have gotten the year of Cervantes’ and Shakespeare’s deaths wrong. Wasn’t it 1616?…

    (I remember being taught as a schoolboy that both of them died, not only in the same year, but on the same day, April 23. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that, although history tells us these two great authors did indeed die on the same date, they died on different days, since Cervantes died in Spain, which had switched to the Gregorian calendar, while Shakespeare died in England, which was still on the Julian calendar. So, although they both died on April 23, Shakespeare’s April 23 was actually ten days later than Cervantes’!…)

    Again, though, I very much enjoyed your post!


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