06 August 2010

Don Q, via Cercas

This is my post for Week 2 of windmills for the mind: a reading of Don Quixote at Winstonsdad's Blog. I' ve finished the Rutherford translation at around page 200. Eight more weeks to go.

There is in Soldiers of Salamis, a war novel by Javier Cercas, a striking scene at the beginning of the third and final part of the book. A journalist named Javier Cercas (yes, it was one of those books where writers name the protagonist after themselves) was asked by his publisher to do some interviews with "people of some prominence" who emigrated to Spain, one of which was the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño (yes, again). On the strength of a series of well-received novels in the 1990s, Bolaño - pithily described as having "that unmistakable air of a hippy peddler that afflicted so many Latin-Americans of his generation exiled in Europe" - was getting more famous and notorious in the Latin American literary scene. He was 47 years old at the time of Cercas's visit, and he just won a "considerable literary prize" (most likely the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for the best Spanish language novel, for Los detectives salvajes).

Cercas (the character, unless otherwise noted) was suffering from writer's block, having already written a big chunk of text for his novel-in-progress. He has taken a leave of absence from his work in the magazine to concentrate on the writing of his novel, a "true tale" of the Spanish Civil War. This unwritten story was slowly consuming him, and he was able to write the main storyline way before the end of his leave. However, after rereading his effort (which constitutes the second section of the novel), Cercas found himself at a loss as to how to continue the narrative. He then cut short his leave from magazine work as he could no longer find a way out of the story whose very incompleteness was taunting him. His attempt to simultaneously write the novel and to make sense of it was leading him to a dead-end. Here was the first conversation between the two character-novelists, just before the actual interview, quoted in dialogue form, but was in the actual written in prose, as translated by Anne McLean. The setting was in Bolaño's modern residence in Blanes, Spain:

Bolaño (opening the door): Hey, you're not the Javier Cercas of The Motive and The Tenant are you?

(Cercas nods.)

Bolaño: I know them. I think I even bought them.

Cercas: Oh, so you were the one, were you?

Bolaño (ignoring the joke): Hang on a second.

(Bolaño went to a hallway and came back after a while.)

Bolaño (brandishing the books triumphantly): Here they are.

(Cercas flipped through the books and saw they were worn copies.)

Cercas (sadly): You read them.

Bolaño (sort of smiling): Of course. I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street.


What is striking about this scene was Cercas's bittersweet sense of dejection and personal vindication by having been read by a fellow writer. Later on, when Bolaño summarized what he remembered of the two books and pronounced his generous assessment of them, Cercas was touched by this gesture that he almost felt like hugging the "softly-spoken, curly-haired, scruffy, unshaven Chilean [he'd] only just met."

Cercas flipped through the books and saw they were worn copies. - It is characteristic of Soldiers of Salamis to rely on the physical evidence or an eyewitness account before accepting the truth or falsity of the claims. The novel is concerned about the search for truth, and the mere mention of a statement will not simply be enough for the claim to be accepted as "the truth." The whole novel, with its meta-structural design, is about the unearthing of evidence about an execution that took place during the war. The conversation just quoted is a representative of this acid test for truth; it is only one of the many trial-like scenes that consciously assesses the veracity of claims. Cercas had to note that the books are worn and this will be perfect evidence that Bolaño did read the two books. The book is littered with these scenes of validation and parsing of evidences, testimonies, and first-hand accounts in books and interviews. The sole test of the validity of truth is in the hard evidence.

The conversation between the two writers is also striking for two more reasons. One, the interview that took place became an impetus for a new story to take place in the novel, for a shift in the direction of the war story that Cercas was trying to finish. The consequence is that the novel was actually finished and the privileged reader (privileged in the sense of being dragged to the adventure like the sidekick Sancho Panza) was privy to how the story reached its conclusion. The other thing to note here is how Bolaño's last statement above was, in fact, Cervantean.

I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street. - This bookish sentence stuck to me and I was surprised that a similar one appears in Don Quixote. This is the narrator (Cervantes?) recounting how he found the missing section of the book, which suddenly materialized in a shopping market [Part I, Chapter IX, Rutherford translation, my emphasis]:

I say, then, that for these and many other reasons our gallant Don Quixote is worthy of continuous and memorable praise - which shouldn't be denied me, either, for all the hard work and diligence I devoted to searching out the conclusion to this agreeable history; although I'm well aware that if heaven, chance and fortune hadn't helped me, the world would have been left without the pleasurable entertainment that an attentive reader of this work can enjoy for nearly two hours. And this is how I found the missing part:
One day when I was in the main shopping street in Toledo, a lad appeared, on his way to sell some old notebooks and loose sheets of paper to a silk merchant; and since I’ll read anything, even scraps of paper lying in the gutter, this leaning of mine led me to pick up one of the notebooks that the lad had for sale, and I saw that it was written in characters that I recognized as Arabic.

I don’t know how both statements appear in the original Spanish, but they are essentially alike that one cannot help but assume that Bolaño (or more precisely, the character named Bolaño, as told by a journalist named Cercas, in a book by the novelist Cercas), knowingly or unknowingly, appropriated a statement by Cervantes (or more accurately the narrator of the Quixote).

Both the Quixote and Soldiers of Salamis are soaked in meta-fictional solutions and both are concerned with a mimesis of authenticity. The three parts of Soldiers of Salamis are, structurally, fictive write-ups: (i) the journalist’s research about an incident in the Spanish war, (ii) the novel he wrote about it, and (iii) the continuation of an "interrupted" book whose ending was initially obfuscated but later brought into focus. The conceit - the telling itself of the novel - is its own wordplay.

The Cervantean statement is a classic aphorism for bookworms. Don Q is about books, bookishness, bibliophilism. The character of Don Q and his conception of himself are a composite of the heroic characters in books of chivalry. The tricky realism of Cercas's novel, and any novel masquerading as a proto-novel for that matter, can be traced to the post/modernist Don Q. Whereas Soldiers of Salamis ended its story by relating how the ending was achieved in the final chapter, the ninth chapter of the Quixote tells of the narrator's efforts to continue the story which abruptly ended in the eighth chapter. There are two authors to the Quixote; Soldiers of Salamis has one, though he was assisted by another, in a manner of speaking.

At which point, seeing that it is quite late already and I have said too much, I decide to publish these notes and to say more what will be related in the next blog post.


  1. An interesting connection just fell into your hands from a coincidence of reading, memory and shared imagery. Amazing !

    'Only connect' -E.M.Forster

  2. Yes, Hydriotaphia. The more readings we do, the more meanings get entangled in that connection. "Only connect."

  3. Rise, sorry for the random comment in this post ... I just gave you an award:

  4. Very nice. I have to find out more about Cercas -- I may be buying a goodly number of Spanish language books this week as Ellen and I are going to Mexico City! Leaving tomorrow. I will add him to the (currently Bolaño-dominated) list of things to look for...

  5. Yikes, The Versatile Blogger award. Thanks, aloi! :)

  6. A trip, with book-hunting! Enjoy your time, Jeremy. I have started another by Cercas: The Speed of Light (La velocidad de la luz). And there’s an upcoming one in translation that’s been receiving some good notice, The Anatomy of a Moment (Anatomía de un instante).

    Thanks for LINKIN to READIN. :)

  7. Inspiring post, Rise, both on its own merits and because it reminded me of how much I enjoyed that Javier Cercas novel that you mentioned! The Quixote's playful games with truth and fiction are one of the reasons I love it so much, but I also love how Don Quixote himself evolves as a character over the course of the novel. One of my favorite quotes by him: "I know who I am." This simple statement by a supposed madman of sorts will take on a tremendous emotional force by the time we reach the second part of the novel!

  8. Gracias, Richard. I'm curious already as to where the story will ultimately lead. I know some who only loved Part I. His madness is growing on me. :)

  9. I started reading Soldados de Salamis and am enjoying it quite a bit without, as of halfway through, being quite sure what to make of it.

  10. Oh you found a copy! I had that similar first impression of the book, Jeremy. Puzzling out what Cercas is doing with the story. As if the story is trying to discover how to tell itself.

  11. The third part (which I have just started) seems like it will be the key to it all -- when he says the book was "insufficient, like a mechanism unable to carry out its funtion... because it was missing some piece" I think he means to say the missing piece is the outer story which he is writing in the present tense.

  12. Right, Jeremy. The larger story seems to be missing. Read on and see if the key fits the lock. *_*

  13. ...Cercas says the missing piece was Miralles -- I can accept that but I think it still makes sense to say that parts I and III are "missing" -- part II published by itself would not be a complete book. In a funny turn of events, I grew up in Modesto, CA (hence my pseud), which is the next town over from Stockton -- tonight I'm going to watch Fat City.

  14. I'm with you that the 2nd part is not self-contained while parts 1 & 3 are ostensibly presented as sections of a "novel-in-progress." The whole book is constantly in progress, in a way. I have to find a copy of that movie.

  15. Is Netflix available in the Philippines? They have it available for streaming. A great movie but extremely bleak...

  16. I'm not sure, Jeremy. I'll check, bleak movie or not. :)