Still Tilting at Windmills
On the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death, Spain struggles to honor its literary heritage
Apr 20, 2016
22 Min read time
Actors portraying Sancho Panza, left, and Miguel de Cervantes take a break from entertaining tourists in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, the Don Quixote author’s birthplace. / Stephen Phelan
On a recent Saturday morning, I caught The Cervantes Train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. Don Quixote greeted me on the platform. He was dressed pretty much as described in the novel that made him immortal: a lesser nobleman of La Mancha from the early seventeenth century, passing for a knight in flimsy (cardboard) armor, and carrying the (padded foam) lance with which he tilts at windmills.
He spoke in the Old Castillian vernacular that made it comically tricky for the book’s other characters to understand him—even more so for today’s Spanish speakers, and that much harder for non-fluent foreigners like me. “I’m sorry,” he said, when I informed him that I am Irish. “I am not familiar with your barbarous tongue.”
Another actor playing Sancho Panza, the humble farmer turned reluctant squire to the deluded hero, wanted me to share his wineskin. “Drink, Irishman,” he insisted. Duly coerced into errantry at not-yet 9:00 a.m., I squirted a long red jet of cheap-tasting, watered-down peasant wine into my mouth, to the rowdy approval of fellow passengers. Most of them turned out to be day-tripping local families and tourists from elsewhere in Spain. Many were responding to the recent promotional push for this year’s Cervantes quadricentennial.
Almost four centuries to the day since the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra—April 23, 1616, supposedly—we boarded a modern Renfe Cercanías commuter train to Alcalá de Henares, where the author was born. An ancient Roman settlement that later flourished as a center of learning in the Spanish Golden Age, the town has since become an outer suburb of Madrid, barely twenty-five miles from the capital.
How can Cervantes be the true voice of the people when most of them no longer know what he is talking about?
The performance aspect of the journey devolved into slapstick en route. One stout-hearted little girl got hold of Don Quixote’s lance and chased Sancho Panza down the carriage with it. Other kids fired questions like senators at a committee hearing, demanding to know the whereabouts of the former’s skinny horse, Rocinante, and the latter’s chubby donkey, Dapple, both as essential to the story and its iconography as either of their riders.
Sancho said the animals were not allowed on public transport, drawing sympathy from some quarters, indignation from others.
On arrival, a couple of history students from University of Alcalá gave us a guided tour of their 700-year-old campus, its medieval cloisters and courtyards now protected by the town’s status a UNESCO World Heritage site. The students took us to a gallery of Quixote-inspired artworks on the site of the former Santa Maria la Mayor parish church, where Cervantes was baptized on October 9, 1547.
Outside, in the market square at Plaza de Cervantes, we gathered around a statue of the man himself. A sailor and soldier long before he wrote The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, he is rendered into bronze as a warrior-poet with a sword in one hand and quill in the other. The actors returned to play crowd-pleasing scenes loosely based on the book, and a living incarnation of Cervantes came along to give them notes, also wearing full period dress but referring to a recent paperback edition. In biographical terms, he didn’t quite look the part.
Too young, for one thing. The real Cervantes was almost sixty years old when he published the first part of the novel in 1605. For another, this fellow’s left hand appeared to be working just fine, when it should have been permanently disabled from the gunshot wound Cervantes sustained at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. He took two more arquebus balls to the chest the same day, while fighting with the naval forces of the Holy League against the Ottoman fleet. I considered tearing open the impostor’s blouson to expose his telltale lack of scars, but naked skepticism did not seem to be in the spirit of the occasion.
He held up his copy of Don Quixote and asked how many of us had read it. A few of the kids raised their hands, while their parents muttered qualifiers about abridged or illustrated versions. Among the adults, a few more hands went up, with a communal laugh of embarrassment. The numbers seemed roughly to bear out last year’s survey by the government’s Sociological Research Center, which found that only one in five Spaniards have read both parts of the complete novel start to finish, and 41 percent have never opened a copy. Respondents said they were put off by the length and perceived archaism of the text, which made the book seem too distant, too different, too difficult.
Our faux-Cervantes affected to weep for a moment, then got flamboyantly huffy and told us we were not worthy of his talent. In this, he sounded almost like an echo of the living novelist and journalist Javier Cercas, who earlier this year lamented the apparent half-heartedness of official state planning for the 400th anniversary.
“I’ve often asked if we Spanish deserve Cervantes,” Cercas said. “Now I know we don’t.”
Many native literary voices agreed. The writer Soledad Puértolas, an eminent member of the Royal Academy of Spain, invited her countrymen and women to consider the robustness and inclusiveness of Britain’s equivalent celebrations for William Shakespeare, who is widely believed to have died on the same day as Cervantes. (There are several good reasons to dispute this wonderful pub-quiz factoid, which does not account for discrepancies between the English and Spanish calendars of that period, nor the mistake made by the local registrar who confused the date of Cervantes’s burial, the 23rd, with that of his actual passing, most likely the day before.)
“The English have managed to sell Shakespeare as one of the pillars of their language, because theirs is a more pragmatic country than ours,” Puértolas said. “Spain is not a place that knows how to acknowledge its culture.”
If Cervantes is the Spanish Shakespeare, then Alcalá de Henares is, or could be, the Spanish Stratford-upon-Avon, though again it suffers by comparison. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has preserved or restored every Stratford building that it has been able to link to the Bard—his large house at the so-called New Place is being reopened to the public later this year—and made the town a site of secular pilgrimage for readers and theater-goers from across the world. Don Quixote T-shirts and postcards fill Alcalá’s souvenir shops, but no Cervantes-related properties survive intact anywhere in Spain.
Also honored with a monument in Alcalá’s main square is Luis Astrana Marín, author of The Exemplary And Heroic Life of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. That landmark biography, published in seven volumes over ten years from 1948 to 1958, Marín filled several narrative blanks in a very patchy chronology. In the course of his research, he located the house where Cervantes grew up, just a couple of blocks down the main street.
But when Marín came to check out the childhood home, he found the building recently demolished. Something similar happened to the house in Madrid where Cervantes lived his last days—torn down and replaced by its owner in 1833, even after King Ferdinand VII offered to buy and keep the original structure for the sake of those who cared about such things. More than a hundred years later, the extreme conservatism of General Franco did not necessarily extend to the protection of Spanish cultural heritage, but it did allow for a reconstruction in 1956, under the auspices of the newly formed Sociedad Cervantina.
The Cervantes Birthplace Museum that now stands in place of the original structure is a synthetic recreation, all roped-off rooms arranged just so with replica furnishings and bowls of wax fruit. It looks impressive—perhaps too impressive, given that the Cervantes family were relatively poor and occupied only a couple of rooms within a larger building recreated to look like a mansion. There is no sense of anyone ever having inhabited these spaces, no vibrations from the Golden Age.
Outside, our tour-guide Cervantes was posing for photographs on a bench between seated statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. As we regrouped for the return trip, I asked him how it felt to see his family home erased and remade as a full-scale doll’s house, laid open to strangers who were statistically unlikely to give much of a damn about his life and work. I’d put him on the spot, but the actor played it beautifully, hesitating for a moment before reciting an underlined passage from the first and, for some, still the greatest modern novel.
When checked against an English version it came out like this: “It seldom happens that any felicity comes so pure as not to be tempered and allayed by some mixture of sorrow.”
• • •
Back in Madrid, I spoke to José Pascual Marco, director-general of Política e Industrias Culturales y del Libro, which is basically the arts and entertainment division of Spain’s Ministry of Culture. A career diplomat and former ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Marco said he was wary of getting into “hot water” on the subject of Cervantes. The writer’s importance could not be overstated, he told me.
“He’s the father of the novel and the brother of the nation, like the crazy, genius brother who is always by your side.” At the same time, Marco acknowledged that his department had “completely underestimated the intensity of feeling about Cervantes held by certain individuals and institutions.” Chief among these was Darío Villanueva, director of the Royal Academy, who openly condemned the official Cervantes Year Committee for its slow and tentative unveiling of the quadricentennial program, which wasn’t even announced until late February.
‘The tall, thin man in armor, on his emaciated horse, and the short, fat man on his donkey. It’s a charismatic image, and a very tender one.’
Some would, and did, say that the state had more important priorities, given that there is in fact no government at present. The fallout from last December’s general election has left Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in office as a kind of custodian, as neither his party nor its leading left-wing opponents won enough seats to hold a parliamentary majority. None have since been willing or able to form a viable coalition.
But Villanueva refused to accept this excuse. “Cervantes is above politics,” he said. “Cervantes is really, absolutely above politics,” Marco repeated when we spoke. “I honestly believe that. Don Quixote speaks to us in difficult times, helps us overcome them, reminds us that we can be free from all constraints and even from the petty demands of everyday reality. In the country’s worst storms, the book has been a good compass.”
There is a school of thought that holds all this to be true—maintaining that the author and his masterpiece have become trustee and repository of the national spirit; that the simultaneous earthiness and loftiness of Don Quixote forms a sort of binding agent, holding disparate, autonomous provinces together and sustaining Spanish hopes through periods of crisis. The meaning of the novel may forever be protean, mercurial, quicksilver.
“What is the true object of Don Quixote’s quest?” the mighty critic Harold Bloom asks. “We are not permitted to know.” But the quest itself upholds “our perennial willingness to sacrifice in order to fully realize our dreams,” as leading Quixote scholar Ilan Stavans puts it in his introduction to the 400th anniversary English translation by John Ormsby. Stavans has elsewhere noted historic resurgences of quixotic thinking among the so-called Generation of ’98—intellectuals facing the collapse of Spain’s global empire in the late nineteenth century—and those who suffered under Franco’s long dictatorship.
But petty reality prevails, and the fact remains that this country’s ruling elites and landowners have largely spurned Cervantes since he mocked them in the pages of Don Quixote, while the general public who made that book his only real success have gradually given up reading it. How can he be the true voice of the people when most of them no longer know what he is talking about? “Well, it’s a tough read,” Marco admitted.
He further confessed that he had only read the whole thing himself for the first time “quite recently,” though he wouldn’t say exactly when. “Of course I would argue that this only gives me more empathy for all those who struggle with the text,” he added.
One stated aim of the 400th anniversary program is to make Cervantes more accessible, especially to kids and teens, using rap, graffiti, and comic books in schools, though according to recent research, “younger readers are often better read and informed than the older cohort, the over-60s, who may be rather harder to reach.”
In general, Marco said, the majority of scheduled events were “more grassroots than top-down,” planned independently of state oversight. He cited this year’s Almagro International Classical Theater Festival, to be held in Don Quixote’s home region of La Mancha in July, which will feature thirty-one separate Cervantes-related performances. “We’ve provided support in lots of different areas, but we’re quite hands-off,” he explained. “Like Mao said, let a hundred flowers bloom.”
• • •
Even before the anniversary, Cervantes’s profile was raised higher than it had been in a century or so by last year’s discovery of his bones beneath a Madrid convent. They were presumed lost forever.
Again, Marco said he had to be careful, as the project was not within his jurisdiction, and the forensic investigation was ongoing. There had been talk of constructing a new, publicly accessible tomb for the author as part of the quadricentennial celebrations, but Marco felt this was “premature.” “Everything is all being done properly, scientifically,” he said. “Nothing is being rushed.”
Nobody knows this better than Fernando de Prado, the historian most directly responsible for the find. De Prado spent years of his life, and thousands of euros of his own money, searching for Cervantes’s skeleton and trying to convince Madrid city officials to take the slightest interest in his archeological efforts.
“For a long time, I was absolutely alone in this,” he told me. De Prado was in the midst of moving house, so we met at his temporary dwelling—his elderly mother’s apartment in the northwestern neighborhood of Fuentelarreina. The building was relatively modern, but he ushered me into something like an eighteenth-century drawing room, decorated with family heirlooms and hung with portraits of ancestors such as Don Diego Martinez de Prado, who was among the first Spaniards to venture to Chile and later went looking for El Dorado in the Venezuelan jungle.
“I have always lived in the past,” de Prado said, pouring me a glass of sherry. “Which I know is not necessarily a healthy thing.” He grew up in San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, sifting through his grandmother’s old books and manuscripts, a “maniac reader” and budding genealogist. As an adult he specialized in military history, studying under Sir Richard Holmes and other luminaries at London’s Imperial War Museum. He said he remembered every detail on the jacket of his childhood copy of Don Quixote.
“The tall, thin man in armor, on his emaciated horse, and the short, fat man on his donkey. It’s a charismatic image, and a very tender one. They are universal figures, recognized in every part of the world. And they represent the two sides of the human mind: the idealistic, and the realistic.” But de Prado’s particular interest in Cervantes developed much later, around the mystery of the missing bones.
For centuries, this had been an element of the author’s legacy, one last posthumous question mark in a brilliantly eventful life already replete with rumors, doubts, and unknowns: Did the young Cervantes really plan to elope with a barmaid named Josefina Catalina de Parez, until her father stepped in? Did he first leave Spain to learn Renaissance art and poetry in Rome, or to escape a royal warrant for his arrest after wounding one Antonio de Sigura in a duel? And did he die of cirrhosis of the liver or of type 2 diabetes, or did one cause the other, as the modern physician Antonio Lopez Alonso concluded after examining all available records?
Within the crypt was a shattered casket marked M.C. and seventeen sets of remains, long since decomposed to bone fragments and scraps of clothing.
De Prado talked me through it. By his own request, Cervantes was buried at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, near his house in central Madrid. The Trinitarian order had helped to pay the ransom that freed him after five years as a captive of Barbary pirates in Algiers, and the founder of that convent was the daughter of an old comrade-in-arms from the forces of King Phillip II. When the building was renovated in 1673, his remains were supposedly moved with many others, and subsequently misplaced.
But de Prado’s working theory was that the bones never left the original crypt and that Cervantes was still down there, underneath the newer structure. “So I’m thinking, let’s search the crypt.” First, he dug through all the death and burial records of the convent and surrounding quarter; then he solicited support for a physical excavation. The Royal Academy was helpful, he says, as were several literary heavyweights—de Prado showed me a letter of endorsement from the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
The convent residents, however, were reluctant. “The nuns who live there are very old women who spend most of their lives within those walls,” de Prado explained. “Imagine asking your grandmother, a charming and lovely woman I’m sure, if a group of workmen can come to her house tomorrow and rip up the floors to look for a corpse. Well, these women felt the same way, except more intensely because of their religion, and their seclusion.”
After an extended period of back-and-forth between the nuns and the Archbishopric to get the necessary permission, de Prado applied for funding from the city government and private investors. Their refusals and rejections stopped the endeavor cold, and left him so vexed that he was still venting long after the fact.
“You can speak to a person, and you can even convince them. But an institution, or an entity, will make a coward of that person. They won’t take a risk or make a decision unless it’s a direct order from the top. And the bosses might be brilliant businessmen or politicians but they’re often complete idiots when it comes to culture.”
The money was only apportioned, according to de Prado, when one notably obstructive member of Madrid’s city council was removed after a corruption scandal and replaced with someone more amenable. Those funds covered a scientific expedition to the convent, led by Francisco Etxeberria, a veteran forensic anthropologist renowned for his role in unearthing mass graves from the Spanish Civil War and exhuming Chilean president Salvador Allende, whose death during the military coup of 1973 had always been considered suspect. Etxeberria and his team went to work with infrared cameras, 3D scanners, and ground-penetrating radar, eventually uncovering thirty-three niches behind a wall of the crypt.
Within one of these was a shattered casket marked with the initials M.C. and filled with seventeen sets of remains: six children, six adult males, and five adult females, long since decomposed to bone fragments and small scraps of clothing. Lab tests dated that material to the early seventeenth century and brought the investigators as close to a conclusion as the evidence would allow. “We are convinced that among these fragments we have something of Cervantes,” Etxeberria told a press conference in March 2015. “However, I can’t say that with absolute certainty.”
The condition of the remains was such that the author could not be identified by his war wounds or otherwise distinguished from the bones of those who shared his tomb (including his estranged wife, Catalina de Salazar y Palacios). There were no known living relatives, nor any dead ones whose remains could be located for DNA sampling and comparative analysis. Cervantes’s younger sister is believed to be buried somewhere outside Madrid, but her remains are also commingled with others. His daughter, a nun, may also be among the bones beneath the convent, but the team do not think they can find her. And, according to de Prado, the author’s last direct descendant may be lying in an unmarked war grave near Flanders, a casualty of the First World War.
De Prado imagined a future in which technology would be advanced enough to confirm beyond doubt the semi-positive results of all his painstaking research, and perhaps even “reconstruct a whole skeleton from one small portion of the remains.” In the meantime, he felt his job was done. When I asked if there wasn’t something quixotic about his own quest, de Prado said that the book, and that character, had “completely overshadowed” their creator. He hoped that his work had helped to revive Cervantes as a personage.
“He is always close to us, as Spaniards, so close that we can’t really see him,” de Prado told me, the afternoon sun flaring in his mother’s crystal glasses and gilded picture frames. “Over the centuries he has become almost invisible. But this was a man who had a rich life, full of adventures. He was a brave soldier in combat and in captivity, which requires a different kind of courage. Later, he suffered many losses and misfortunes but he never gave in to bitterness or despair. As an old man without fortune he wore his poverty with dignity. My idea was only to find his remains and put a stone there to mark the human being.”
A stone was duly raised at the convent on June 11 of last year, in a highly publicized reburial service attended by Madrid’s then-mayor Ana Botella and other city luminaries. The inscription was taken from the prologue to Cervantes’s final work, The Troubles of Persiles and Sigismunda, which was written from his deathbed and addressed to his indifferent patron Pedro Fernández de Castro y Andrade, the Count of Lemos: “Time is short, fear increases, hopes diminish, and with all of this I carry out my life with the desire to live.”
De Prado attended the ceremony, feeling not so much vindicated as “very, very tired.” He would have preferred a simpler epitaph. “Perhaps nothing more than ‘Miguel de Cervantes: Soldier, Writer, and Poet.’” Or, even starker, just the names of all seventeen men, women, and children whose bone fragments were mingled within the new monument. This past February, de Prado was officially rewarded for his services to Spanish culture with a Commendation of the Civil Order of Alfonso X the Wise. Showing me the medal in its velvet-lined box, he seemed proud enough of the honor but still a bit miffed that nobody had offered to reimburse him for the roughly 16,000 euros he racked up in personal expenses.
He had also thought the City Council of Madrid might now recognize the value of Cervantes as a cultural commodity and capitalize on the recent publicity with a new museum, or at least the mooted open-access memorial. But the latter had been delayed until December 2016 at the earliest, for reasons that sounded like excuses or “lies” to de Prado: budgetary constraints, logistical concerns, a pending proposal to study seventeenth-century nutrition by examining the remains of children in the Trinitarian crypt.
To some, the simultaneous earthiness and loftiness of Don Quixote forms a sort of binding agent, holding Spanish hopes together through crisis.
In his opinion, the momentum was lost when Madrid’s new mayor Manuela Carmena was elected last summer, just two days after the reburial. Funding initially earmarked for a visitor center at the convent had since allegedly been redirected into improved campsites and other services around the capital for RVs and auto-caravans—Carmena’s pet project for attracting more tourists.
“I don’t think the current mayor and her councilors will do anything about developing the tomb,” de Prado said, “because it was a project initiated by the previous city council.” In other words, Cervantes is not above politics. “He should be, of course. But obviously he’s not.”
• • •
I rode the metro back into the city and got out at Plaza de España. That vast pedestrian square is dominated at one end by the Franco-era Edificio España, a neo-baroque skyscraper designed as a testament to national prosperity under the Generalissimo. At the other is a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, riding underneath an obelisk capped with a globe that signifies their vital role in the spread of the Spanish language. Raised in the 1920s, it is the only public monument to Cervantes in the capital and a popular spot for selfies and group photos of visiting coach parties. But it may soon be moved elsewhere if the council’s redevelopment plans are allowed to go ahead.
Across the city center, the author’s house is long gone. There is only a small bust on the present building to note that he lived there, though the street itself was later renamed Calle Cervantes. The surrounding Huertas district is now known as Barrio de las Letras, the neighborhood of letters. It was home to fellow writers, friends, and rivals including Lope de Vega and the Francisco de Quevedo, who wrote plays and poems much more reputable, and profitable, than those of Cervantes.
De Vega’s house remains intact, and the museum inside gives some idea of what Cervantes’s home might have looked like. The atmosphere of the place, with its pleasant courtyard garden and long-standing orange tree, may also be tainted with a certain bitterness for Don Quixote fans, given that de Vega disliked the book and trashed it even in advance of the first part’s publication.
A further irony: the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, the final resting place of Cervantes, is one block over on the street named after de Vega. Technically the convent is open to the public, admitting group visits by prior appointment. But I called all week and nobody answered the phone. Fernando de Prado told me that the nuns were now under pressure to allow greater access, and it seemed they had responded by closing their doors tighter than ever. When I got there, though, the main door was open, and a cleaner was vacuuming the entryway. It was the only sound in the street on a quiet Thursday afternoon.
I had hoped to stand outside and listen for the silence from the crypt, where vestiges of the great writer—pieces of skull or shin or finger—were reposing like holy relics, dormant yet potent, somewhere underneath my feet. But now I thought I might be permitted to take a quick look inside, to pay my respects at the new gravestone, or at least to ask if there was someone I could talk to. I smiled at the cleaner and mentally prepared that request in my best modern Spanish, the language of Miguel de Cervantes. She smiled back, turned off the vacuum cleaner, and gently closed the door in my face.
April 20, 2016
22 Min read time