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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hanging Around with Cervantes

It was a discussion about the futility of reading the old books again. Waste of time, life is short, you should read only new books, some of us were saying. An old book is like old wine, it's fine to keep on reading, were saying the others. To paraphrase old Miron Costin, there isn't any other futility more pleasant than intimacy with your old books.

Florette (whom I dedicate this post) had a great phrase, you should read Don Quixote three times at least: as a kid, nel mezzo del cammin, and finally when you are old enough, to feel the taste.

I remember my first encounter with Cervantes. I was nine or ten years old and my father gave me a small book in Romanian translation: the story of the ingenioso hidalgo retold by Paul Reboux. The French original had been printed in 1934 at Flammarion. I found recently a presentation of the book on the web (À ses jeunes amis Paul Reboux raconte le Don Quichotte de Cervantès, illustrations de Félix Lorioux).

To be frank, I didn't enjoy too much the adventures of Don Quichotte by that time. I was not comfortable at all with all those guys making fun of a poor man mentally disturbed and his stupidly grotesque failures were raising in me a mix of compassion and contempt.

I met Cervantes the second time when I was seventeen or eighteen. It was this time a book by Mihai Ralea (Scrieri din Trecut, in Literatura): a collection of essays about various authors, about art in general, as well as descriptions of voyages around the world. Ralea loved enormously to travel.

There was in the book of Ralea an ample analysis of Arghezi's poetry, superbly concluding that great values are not built on pedestals of sand; Arghezi is Romanians' greatest poet since Eminescu (valori prea mari nu se pot cladi pe postamente de nisip: Arghezi este cel mai mare poet al romanilor de la Eminescu incoace).

It was there also a study about art and ugliness (Arta si Uratul). My encounters with the Hyperrealism would come after tens of years; but that study of Mihai Ralea marked the beginnings in my understanding that art should be expressive rather than beautiful.

Well, and it was also Cervantes in the book! Ralea was telling the story of his voyage in Spain, in La Mancha.

He entered there a small taberna and noticed a tall skinny gentleman standing in front of the bar. His eyes were carrying something like a noble insanity, you could expect from him to take out the sword, or to start reciting some poem from the Sieclo d'Oro, anything. But it was not only madness in his eyes; there was also something like a wise resignation, a guy who had seen too much along his life to not be aware of the madness of the world.

The gentleman finished his glass of wine and left, leaving the door open. His shape disappeared in the hot air outside, as he had been a ghost. Actually all people inside the taberna were looking the same. La Mancha was a country of tall skinny gentlemen, distinguished and insane. The hot air was playing bad tricks there.

Now, it's a long time since I read the story told by Ralea and I'm not sure of all details anymore. What I know is that from that moment I understood that the adventures of Don Quixote meant much, much more that I had understood when reading the book of Paul Reboux.

And when The Man of La Mancha came to Bucharest, in the seventies, featuring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, I already knew that Cervantes and Don Quixote were the same person.

The tall skinny hidalogo of La Mancha remained my friend throughout the years, preventing me always when I was tempted to act madly, while encouraging me when I was afraid to be mad. Among all the great masters in the world literature, he always stood by me closely, in good times smiling ironically, in bad times raising my spirits.

And so the years passed over me, too. It was now 2003 and I saw The Man of La Mancha for the second time: it was played in New York, in a theater near Times Square, with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio. The hidalgo was there too, in the attendance not far from me, watching the musical, and smiling an impossible smile.

And then I discovered again the spirit of La Mancha, noble and mad, in the movies of Almodóvar. And the wind mills. Am I too old now to start again, this time with Cervantes de Leon from the video games?

(Una Vida Entre Libros)



  • Nice post.This book was so lovely.It should have been translated in different languages.Very informative and thrilling.Romanian translation or in any translation it would be a blast.Translating book shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.It is important that books written in a foreign language since it helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region.

    By Anonymous sara, at 3:04 AM  

  • Nice post. I was waiting for that Romanian translation and I was glad that I have found it in here.Thanks for sharing.I could say that translators really play a big role in our society.I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions.Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.

    By Anonymous trisha, at 2:21 AM  

  • Thank you for the nice comment!

    By Blogger Pierre Radulescu, at 2:46 AM  

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