Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pre-emptive reaction

I’m about 50 pages from the end of Don Quixote which means I’ll most likely finish it some time on the commute tomorrow (if there is a commute and the whole Earth is not engulfed completely in an ice-chrysallis overnight, we shall see!) but I’m going to go ahead and post about it now, before finishing it, because I’m reasonably sure at this point that of all the virtues which Renaissance proto-novels may possess, slambang killer endings is probably not one of them. (If I’m wrong I will duly post a corrective to that effect.)

I’m always pleasantly surprised when very old works of literature indulge in the kinds of things I enjoy and associate with more modern stories, and Don Quixote certainly has been full of those kinds of surprises, ranging all the way from weird meta-literature commentary straight on down into legitimately funny poop jokes. But at the same time it has the kind of rambling, episodic, seemingly-made-up-as-it-goes-along vibe that I’ve encountered in other relics of the written word, which if nothing else makes me kind of curious about the various adaptations of the story floating around out there. I confess I’ve never seen the show Man of La Mancha or any of the attempts to film Cervantes’ magnum opus, and at this point I might have to check out at least one just to see how they distill the whole source down to the length and pacing of a modern narrative. (But, honestly, that would be pretty low on my ever-out-of-control pop to-do list.)

At its heart Don Quixote is all about the challenges of living both inside and outside of society's norms.  And also medieval dick jokes.
I’ve mentioned before that I use the GoodReads website to track my book consumption, and one of the categories I created to group together certain kinds of books I enjoy is one I named “fiction with footnotes”. Generally that implies that the author of the novel has annotated his own text, often in a manner such that the footnotes become part of the narrative in strange metatextual ways (David Foster Wallace did this a lot; Junot Diaz did it in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Nabokov did it in Pale Fire and did it in the voice of the first-person unreliable narrator to boot, which is just endlessly amusing to English major nerds) – not to be confused with scholarly, editorial footnotes. So while the edition of Don Quixote I’ve been reading is generously annotated, it won’t go on my “fiction with footnotes” shelf because they’re all footnotes by the translator. Which is fair enough, because sometimes a little explanation here and there is helpful to clear up topical references four hundred years later. On the other hand, the footnotes do get amusing and/or weird sometimes. Some of them explain the fact that jokes based on wordplay literally get lost in translation from Spanish to English, and the inherent lack of humor which occasionally warps back around to funny again in the process of over-explaining jokes is something that has always fascinated me. Another footnote accompanies a statement Quixote makes about encountering a gryphon, and the footnote explains what that mythological creature is, which begs the question (in my mind at least): who makes it through 800 pages of unabridged Don Quixote and doesn’t know what a gryphon is? Perhaps the translation was done before Harry Potter got huge.

My favorite footnote, though, was one I just read this morning, which gave a little background on some of the phrasing in a scene in which Sancho Panza ties one on with an innkeeper. The edition transliterates “making the X” and the footnote explains that hecho equis was a common slang in 1600’s Spain for “getting drunk” and I love it. Let me count the ways:

1. Fun to say. Hecho equis, hecho equis, hecho equis!
2. The translator insists that the euphemism arose because when a person is staggeringly drunk they have to spread their legs for balance, which, maybe so, but that is more “making the inverted-Y”. I have no proof (zing!) but personally I choose to believe that the translator is a bit of a clueless fuddy-duddy
and passing out on your back with all four limbs splayed comes closer to the spirit (zing-a-zing!) of the phrase
4. I kind of wish I had known this back in college because I was apt to slip into remedial Spanish 101 when I had exceeded my metabolic capacities, and in my misspent youth this happened approximately … all the time, but the Spanish was limited to my senior year in college when I was padding my credits load with intro-level foreign language classes. Piso mojado was often my drunken catchphrase; hecho equis would have been that much more rad
5. I’ve also never made a secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of Dos Equis beer, a cerveza which claims to be named in honor of the Twentieth Century as expressed in Roman numerals (XX). I am also now going to choose to believe that that is a mere cover story and really the beer is called “Double Drunk” and sold to unsuspecting gringos as a hilarious and tasty practical joke.

At any rate, my Year of Twelve Classics is off to an auspicious start, even if the first installment has taken me more than a month to get through. Don Quixote, a broad satire of romantic chivalry, really was right up my alley and I do feel good about finally having it under my belt. The next trick is finding a much shorter classic to line up next so I can stay on pace for February.

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