Cervantes

“Freedom is one of the most precious gifts
that Heaven has bestowed upon men.”

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I took it personally when an aberrant soul or souls desecrated the Cervantes monument in San Francisco. In the city named after an Italian saint who preached and worked for peace and equality. On the creator of the modern novel; the author of the most translated book (after the Bible) in all of creation. The father of one of the best-known fictional figures in any language. A man who never got what he deserved from life, unjustly vilified hundreds of years after his death.

Cervantes was born in mid-sixteenth century Spain. His father studied some medicine from a relative. We know nothing of his mother. In those days people who could afford to do so never consulted a Christian doctor: they much preferred, for good reason, physicians who had trained under Jewish or Arab professors. Queen Isabel’s life was saved by a Jewish physician a couple of times. Some experts therefore believe that Cervantes had Jewish ancestors. Not a source of pride at that time.

Cervantes had little formal education. Soon after adolescence he moved to Italy, maybe to escape police who wanted to question him about injuries received by a rival during a duel. He loved Italy. He ended up enlisting in the military (Spain had many Italian possessions in the 16th century). Soon he found himself in the middle of the naval battle of Lepanto, one of the greatest military achievements of Christian troops against the Turkish Navy. Had they lost, all of us may have grown up Muslim.

Cervantes was feverish as the enemy approached. He was ordered below deck. He refused to spend the battle in sick bay. He told his CO that he would rather die than know that he was not there to help his comrades.
During the battle he was shot in the left forearm. A nerve was severed, rendering the left hand useless. Never mind that. He kept fighting; was injured a couple more times and was declared one of the indisputable heroes of the day. The admiral, who was the king’s bastard brother, gave him an instant cash bonus. Within five weeks he was back in action and participated in two subsequent encounters.

He headed back to Spain, accompanied by his brother, with letters of recommendation from the admiral and his Army chief. His ship was seized by pirates from north Africa (these pirates, by the way, managed to continue to operate for centuries. They drove President Jefferson batty). Once they discovered the glowing letters in Cervantes’s possession, they figured that he was a very important person. They asked for a huge ransom, which of course Cervantes could not afford.

His master liked him because Cervantes was a nice guy and provided good conversation. Until he tried to escape, four times. The usual punishment for this ungrateful behavior was death. Knowing this, Cervantes assumed full responsibility for all of these plots. He insisted that none of his fellow escapees be punished.

His mother and some Trinitarian priests raised a nice sum of money for the ransom. His master refused to let Cervantes and his brother go: there was not enough money to cover both ransoms. Cervantes insisted that his brother should be released first. He remained a prisoner until other priests raised the ransom money literally hours before Cervantes’s captor sailed for Istanbul with Cervantes. We were an instant away from never knowing Don Quijote.

Back in Spain he sought work: any work. He was hired as a tax collector. He was despised because he had to go door to door with his petition. He tried to collect from the Church, which got him in deep trouble, and his banker absconded with some funds, which landed him in jail.

Here he is: a war hero; a cripple; broke and still in debt to the people who raised money to free him. In jail, with no prospect of any help coming his way. Instead of writing about the unfairness of it all; instead of being bitter and full of rage, our hero comes up with the idea of writing a novel that makes all of his countrymen laugh hysterically. Breaking with all convention of what was popular at the time, he created the basis for the modern novel, and a fictional hero that remains popular to this day.

Once Don Quijote became a huge success one of Cervantes’s contemporaries wrote a sequel to the original under a pseudonym. This so infuriated Cervantes that he wrote Part II of Don Quijote ten years after Part I. This time he arranges for his hero to die, thus eliminating the possibility of further plagiarism.

This is the guy whose statue some ignorant bumpkin has defaced. A monument to genius and wisdom. We have no idea of what Cervantes looked like: this piece of metal is just a symbol of good will. Cervantes knew better than any of us what it felt like to be deprived of freedom. Thus, the quote from Don Quijote above. I have no doubt that, were he alive and in possession of a weapon, he would have allowed the people who insulted him to go free. He would have smiled at them; he probably would have used them as comical foils in one of his works.

My brother-in-law, a man far wiser (and smarter) than me, tells me not to get angry: that it takes too much time to lose that ire. I have accepted his challenge. Instead I will ask any and all of those idiots to spend more time reading books. It might keep them off the streets.

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  1. BettyTownsend

    I like your idea that people should read and be educated before they desecrate statues of bygone heroes.