THR Web Features   /   January 26, 2024

The Afterlife of Character

The end is not the end.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Gustave Doré’s illustration for the Prologue to Don Quixote, 1863; public domain, Wikipedia.)

And said most sage Cide Hamete to his pen, “Rest here, hung up by this brass wire, upon this shelf, O my pen, whether of skilful make or clumsy cut I know not; here shalt thou remain long ages hence, unless presumptuous or malignant story-tellers take thee down to profane thee. But ere they touch thee warn them, and, as best thou canst, say to them:

Hold off! ye weaklings; hold your hands!
Adventure it let none,
For this emprise, my lord the king,
Was meant for me alone.

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; it was his to act, mine to write; we two together make but one, notwithstanding and in spite of that pretended Tordesillesque writer who has ventured or would venture with his great, coarse, ill-trimmed ostrich quill to write the achievements of my valiant knight;—no burden for his shoulders, nor subject for his frozen wit: whom, if perchance thou shouldst come to know him, thou shalt warn to leave at rest where they lie the weary mouldering bones of Don Quixote, and not to attempt to carry him off, in opposition to all the privileges of death, to Old Castile, making him rise from the grave where in reality and truth he lies stretched at full length, powerless to make any third expedition or new sally …

Don Quixote (Part II, 1615) by Miguel Cervantes (Trans. John Ormsby)

In La Mancha there was a place, a place whose name I need not mention, halfway between Aragon and Castilla. In that place lived a man devoted to the traditions of old, who liked to don a lance and buckler, a swift horse, and a hunting dog; those were weapons of former times, and as the man greatly revered the past, he continued making use of them, refusing to abandon them. He mostly fed on beef and abstained from eating lamb. And so it was, day after day, with not even the least bit of variation. […] The man’s age was closing in on fifty. Even though he was gaunt and scrawny in the flesh, he was strong and a huntsman. Some say his surname was “Quisada,” others “Quijada.” In my book, I will only refer to him as “Quisada,” though if we abide by the sound and the meaning, calling him “Quijana” would be correct.

Quisada, a man advanced in years, lived idly, so he gave himself to the constant reading of books, those that told stories of ancient roaming knights who fought against the powerful and helped the weak. So drunk was he on the humor of those books that he almost forgot about hunting and even the management of his household, and those heroes of the past so gripped his heart to the point that he went and sold his bushels of land just to buy those books, and in this reading he invested all his days.

Lin Shu, The Story of the Enchanted Knight (1922; translated from the 2021 Spanish translation by Xander Park)

One year ago, I opened this series with the question of when novels begin. That initial installment argued that the obvious answer—the first words of Chapter 1—isn’t sufficient; in fact, it hasn’t been sufficient from the beginning. In Don Quixote, still the leading candidate for the first modern novel, Cervantes claimed the front matter of the printed book for the art of fiction, poking fun at his “idle” reader in the prologue and openly fabricating the dedicatory poems that precede the first chapter. Cervantes and recent examples of “paratextual” incursion reveal, once again, that in the art of fiction, the beginning often is not the beginning, and “The End” not the end.

That first mini concentrated on fiction’s physical boundaries. But the lesson applies just as well to other dimensions of storytelling. Financial success (or distress) has a way of coaxing further adventures out of writers, even if a plotline has been decisively closed. (Turns out that diving into the Reichenbach Falls is no impediment to a new caseload for Sherlock Holmes!) Beloved settings invite back stories or even creation stories, whether cosmic (The Magician’s Nephew) or local (The Deerslayer). But no element of fiction is more prone to escape the confines that authors and editors would establish, more resistant to being finalized, than character. And no novel so exemplifies this ongoing process as the one already on the table before us, Don Quixote.

Cervantes witnessed firsthand the potential for characters to slip out of—or be poached from—their legal residences, and as our first excerpt shows he made one of the brashest attempts in the history of fiction to do something about it. He killed Don Quixote off at the end of Volume II (1615), seeking thereby to circumvent your efforts, dear reader, and yours, rival author, to meet the knight-errant anywhere else other than his own History of the Most Ingenious Hidalgo. There was to be no Volume III. He was set upon this fatal course by a rival claim to authority, as the first excerpt explains. The “Tordesillesque” writer there is one Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, though the name was a protective pseudonym. Avellaneda’s great misdeed was to publish (Cervantes would surely prefer a verb such as “pirate” or “plagiarize” here) The Second Book of the Ingenious Hidalgo in 1614—only one year before Cervantes’s own sequel came out.

In the pirate/plagiarist/appropriator’s defense, Cervantes had closed the first volume of Don Quixote in 1605 with what could be read as a dare. The ending reveals that while no “authentic documents” can be found regarding Don Quixote’s “third sally,” local memory in La Mancha recalls the knight venturing forth one more time to participate in the famous jousting competition at Saragossa. The volume’s final paragraph hints that some poetic fragments related to the Don’s further exploits have been found in a “leaden box […] discovered among the crumbling foundations of an ancient hermitage” and that an “academician” has been readying an edition for publication. After that, in the very last words of the text, Cervantes dangles a slightly misspelled quotation from the Italian poet Tasso: “Forsi altro canterà con miglior plectio,” meaning “Perhaps another will sing with a better plectrum (or pick).” Cervantes was obviously not in a forgiving mood in 1615, but one can see how Avellaneda might have taken those words to be an invitation to play along, and perhaps make some ducats along the way.

Cervantes responded by “plagiarizing the plagiarist” (historian Roger Chartier’s phrase), integrating Avellaneda’s ploy into his own plot. Again and again in Volume II, Don Quixote runs into the false Don Quixote. One scene depicts two readers debating the merits of Cide Hamete Benengeli’s (Cervantes’ invented Moorish historian in Volume I) and Avellaneda’s respective efforts. At one point, Don Quixote is presented with a copy of the fraudulent tome. Later, he visits a print shop, which turns out to be the production center for the spurious history (in Barcelona rather than Tarragona, as Avellaneda’s title page claims). Meeting one Don Alvaro Tarfe, our hero recalls reading his name in the bogus chronicle. At the scene’s conclusion, Don Tarfe makes a statement to local authorities that the real Don Quixote does not appear “in a history entitled ‘Second Part of Don Quixote of La Mancha, by one Avellaneda of Tordesillas.’” In the same episode, the knight declares that he has never, and will never, visit Saragossa in order to foil the Pretender’s plotting.

In the long run, however, Cervantes’s approach, brilliant as it may be, has the look of a pyrrhic victory. The author could never appropriate all his appropriators; and by writing Avellaneda into Volume II he made plagiarism part of the official story. Don Quixote was beyond his control, a fact acknowledged early on in Volume II when the waggish Sansón Carrasco reports that Benengeli’s (i.e. Cervantes’s) history of Don Quixote has become a bestseller: “Only ask [sic] Portugal, Barcelona, and Valencia, where [the volumes] have been printed, and moreover there is a report that it is being printed at Antwerp, and I am persuaded there will not be a country or language in which there will not be a translation of it.” Carrasco was right about Don Quixote’s immediate international success, and not only on the Iberian peninsula and in the Netherlands. In 1612, the first translation—into English—issued from a London press, followed two years later by the first French translation. By the seventeenth century’s end, Italian, Dutch, and German readers could read some, if not all, of Don Quixote’s exploits in their own languages. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Encyclopedia Britannica boasted that the novel had been “translated into every European tongue, including Turkish.”

This would all seem to be for the good. Yet Cervantes worried about the diluting effects of translation; Don Quixote memorably likens reading in translation to looking at the back side of a Flemish tapestry (“for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct”). The issue of ensuing ages, it turns out, has been less the loss of the Don’s distinctiveness than the problem for weavers working far from La Mancha to find adequate local thread. A nineteenth-century Turkish writer, for example, made a number of significant alterations to the title character, beginning with his name. As the literary scholar E. Khayyat explains, our hero became “Daniş Çelebi,” a gentleman (çelebi) whose obsession with books of magic once popular among Istanbullus has sent him in pursuit of “sheiks, demons and elves.” In the ensuing decades, Don Quixote would become a mad samurai in the first Japanese translation, a “godly warrior” in the first Urdu translation, and, as hinted in our second excerpt, a man of learning—more Confucian than crackpot—in the first Chinese translation.

Scholars debate what to call Lin Shu’s method, since he did not read the originals of the European authors—including Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Goethe, Ibsen, and Hugo—whom he industriously delivered to early twentieth-century Chinese readers in their traditional literary language, classical Chinese. In the present case, Lin wrote while an assistant read aloud from at least one and maybe two or three English translations of Don Quixote. Lin cut episodes (and regrettably, Cervantes’s prologue), tailored characters and relationships to Chinese cultural norms (Sancho, for example, is not a squire but a disciple), and inserted his own dialogue. Dulcinea becomes “the Jade Lady.” Is this a translation? A transcreation? An adaptation? What term can adequately account for a novel touched by so many hands? The second excerpt is four, or if we play along with Cervantes, five times translated: it renders in English the recent Spanish translation of Lin’s version of an English translation (or, again, several English translations) of a Spanish novel that purports to be based on an Arabic history of our ingenious hidalgo. Whose book is this? Maybe the better question: Whose isn’t it?

The spiritual descendants of Avellaneda have won, and for that we should rejoice. “The words of a dead man,” Auden wrote in his great ode to Yeats, “are modified in the guts of the living.” The death of the author (may his memory always be green) has freed the character to be remade, in his own person and in others’ persons, again and again. Eighteenth-century readers were offered books with “benevolent,” “political” “spiritual,” and “female” Quixotes in their titles. We recognize his image in Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. (“[A]lthough she has been advised to take exercise,” Charles Bovary says of his wife, “she prefers always sitting in her room reading.”) Kafka told “the truth about Sancho Panza,” revealing that he was the real reader of romances, and Don Quixote his demon. Borges watched Pierre Menard become “author of the Quixote” by writing portions of Cervantes’s text, word for word, in a new milieu. In Quichotte, Salman Rushdie finds a modern Don, “a traveling man of Indian origin,” transfixed by the television: “He devoured morning shows, daytime shows, late-night talk shows, soaps, situation comedies, Lifetime movies, hospital dramas, police series, vampire and zombie serials….” God help us when Don Quixote’s hatchlings discover the Internet.

These translations, adaptations, transmutations, and whatever-they-ares offer so many signs of a consoling fact for lovers of the art of fiction: that novels must end but their characters need not. The greatest characters possess an irrepressible vitality. No border—textual, national, or linguistic—can contain them. They are scattered among millions of libraries. They are captives of no century. They just keep coming back to life.