Silly question, isn’t it? Miguel Cervantes, right?
I first read Don Q. years ago, in fits and starts, in a translation by Tobias Smollett. That was fun – I like that 18th century English – but it did place the book at a remove. Now I’m reading Edith Grossman’s recent translation, and it is a wonder! The voice is completely contemporary, and so funny!
So, the book is 900 pages long and I’m on page 70, and I’m already up to my eyeballs in self-referential, meta-literary, quasi-meta-narrative intellectual pretzels! Did I mention that it’s funny?
Cervantes wrote the book, and presumably is the narrator. The narrator is omniscient. Or he seems to be. That is, he knows a lot of things he couldn’t know from reviewing primary sources, but on the other hand, there is a lot he doesn’t know. Or does he just choose not to tell:
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago…
That’s how it begins, and that’s how it goes on. At the point I just reached, Don Quixote is engaged in combat with another man he takes to be a villain, and is poised to cleave him in two with his sword. The action breaks off and the ‘first part’ ends – something that is typical in chivalric romances I am informed by a translator’s footnote. The author, Cervantes, then informs us that he was at a complete loss as to what happened next in this story he is telling us. That is, until he happened upon a manuscript, quite by chance, written in Arabic, that is a translation of the second part of the battle tale. He hires a translator, and provides us with the remainder of the text.
He warns us that we must not blame him if the story leaves out essential details since he relied on a Morisco to produce the text from the manuscript, and they are notoriously liars. (Of course, he is referring to himself here.) The Morisco laughed when he first saw the manuscript because of the funny annotation in the margin, written by a previous reader, saying that Dulcinea, the peasant whom Quixote imagines a princess, is well known for her skill in preparing pork. Aha, so she’s real after all!
Centuries later, the Argentine writer, Borges, would comment on this with his short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the tale of a man who had so absorbed the meaning and style of Don Quixote, that he sat down and begin to write it out, word for word, again. And of course, his version was even better than the real thing!