The greatest Spanish book of all time is a mantle that can only be ascribed to one novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. The novel has come to define Spain, capturing the mood, style, and aspirations of an entire nation. Having been written over four hundred years ago, it is an astonishing feat of literary genius that the story is as relevant today as ever.
The novel follows a knight, Don Alonso Quixote, as he embarks on an adventure of a lifetime in the name of male chivalry. While in many respects the novel is a spoof of chivalry in romance novels, the depth and razor sharp insight of Don Quixote make the novel so much more.
Don Quixote represents a search for traditional Spanish culture that has been lost, and his simple squire, Sancho represents the disrespected common man of Spanish life, who is more savvy and insightful than he is given credit for. Sancho is the perfect contrast to Don Quixote’s fantasized version of a world that no longer exists.
As Don Quixote continues to romanticise a lost world, the novel plays with the ideas of tragedy and comedy. Quixote philosophizes about the nature of wisdom and truth, as well as pondering the depth of a person’s character, exploring what individualism meant in a world that was yet to embrace it.
The novel’s mark is still discernible on Spanish society today. There is a yearning for this fantastical world of ancient chivalry – Spain’s love for bull fighting and the honor bestowed upon the Toreadors is one example – but there is an understanding that real life is more complex. Spain has embraced the individualistic lessons of Don Quixote, just one look at Gaudi’s architecture, Dali’s paintings, or the structure of the famous Bilbao Guggenheim museum confirms Spain’s appetite for individualism and expression.
The only question that remains about Don Quixote de la Mancha is whether the novel was shaped by Spain and Spain’s identity, or whether the novel itself is responsible for shaping what it has meant to be Spanish for the last four hundred years…
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