Last week was an interesting one in the realm of satirical literature. It brought us word of the sad passing of a modern master, Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, and also of the re-discovery of the grave of Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and a founder of the genre.
I am a Don Quixote fan from way back, beginning with the musical version, “Man of La Mancha,” starring Peter O’Toole (another master). I once wrote an essay for my Themes in Literature class relating Oedipus’s choice to blind himself at the end of Oedipus Rex with Quixote’s arch-nemesis, the Knight of Mirrors: it is a hard thing to face one’s self and what one has become. I own three copies of Cervantes’ novel: a big, fat paperback which I read while on a backpacking journey through Spain, a leatherbound edition from the 1800’s with each “book” in the novel in its own separate volume, and the Modern Library edition, illustrated by another of my favorites, Salvador Dali.
Pratchett and Cervantes both used the tools of story-telling to convey their meanings, and hold up that dreaded mirror to their contemporary lives. They created engaging characters, brought them through great adventures, and made readers laugh along the way. Entertainment was the vehicle that carried their questions into the hearts of their readers.
Both men, Cervantes and Pratchett, have been viewed in their own time primarily in that light, as entertainers, authors of funny books easily read and passed along. But Cervantes’ long legacy suggests the greater depth of his work, and a close reading of the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza finds the author poking fun at government, at chivalric ideals, at literature itself.
Similar concerns may be found in Pratchett’s marvelous novel, The Nation, in which a young man’s home is destroyed, and must be painstakingly rebuilt–in an area known as the Mothering Sunday islands, a jab at the British explorers who traipsed about “discovering” and re-naming many things that already had perfectly good names to begin with. What constitutes good governance? What values should rule society and who gets to decide them?
As Cervantes suggested, there is a fine line between madness and vision. In the grand tradition of the king’s fool, the entertainer is often the carrier of truth, the sorts of truths we find hard to examine. We turn away from our own reflection, but the funhouse mirror of a good satire beguiles us into a closer look. After all, it’s only a story.
Archaeologists and academics around the world hope that discovering Cervantes’ grave and the publicity surrounding this event will result in a resurgence of interest in his work. Will Terry Pratchett, one of his literary heirs, one day be celebrated in such a way? Only time will tell.