In the north of England there once lived a middling sort of gentleman, who, due to a kind of cantankerous disinterest in the human race, was very much taken with reading, so much so, in fact, that he believed that he had read every novel that was worth reading. He had, to the astonishment of the online community, read In Search of Lost Time, Anna Karenina, Henry James’ later novels, The Iliad, The Magic Mountain, and so on, multiple times, and as a result the unfortunate man’s brains became addled. It was, however, perhaps Don Quixote, Cervantes’ famous novel about a crazy man who believed himself to be a knight errant, that did him the worst damage. He bought up numerous copies of the book, in multiple translations, and, after reading them all, he started to think himself, not any old knight, but the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, Don Quixote.
To this end, he ordered a helmet from ebay, which to the naked [or sane] eye would have looked like a reproduction Optimus Prime mask. Next, he purchased a sword, a samurai sword, to be exact, from some shady youngster whose acquaintance he had made on a street corner at 3am, and who had initially tried to persuade him to buy a small packet of white powder. These things, though lacking quality, came easy to our hero, but more difficult to acquire was his Rocinante, for there isn’t much call for horses in a busy northern city centre. A solution was found, however, when [P], for that was our hero’s name, spotted a mongrel, homeless dog one evening, which, to him, had the appearance of a magnificent steed. ‘You will be my Rocinante,’ he said to the nervous animal, as he patted its dirty flank. ‘You will accompany me on adventures great, will ride with me into battle.’ The mutt was none too interested in these promises, and so chose to nose its own leg throughout the short speech, but when [P] called it followed, hoping that this mad new master might have as much food in store as strange ideas in his head.
After being well fed and rested, both master and mutt set out the next day in search of chivalrous acts to perform. Early in their journey the pair came upon a man sitting on the ground, his hand out stretched, asking for alms. Of course, any sane person would have passed on by, or nonchalantly let a coin or two fall into the man’s palm, but [P], not being in his right mind, saw not a beggar, but a powerful Genii.
‘O most marvellous and talented Genii’, he said, ‘have you come to grant me wishes?’
‘Wot?’ said the man.
‘What do I wish? I wish…now let me think…’
‘Are you mad, man?’
’Who is Madman? Is he some kind of enchanter?’
The beggar rolled his eyes. ‘’Ave you got any change, mate?’
‘I do not carry a purse, Genii. I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance!’
‘You’re an imbecile!’
‘Hold your tongue; for although thou art a Genii I will not take insults from thee.’
At this, [P] drew his sword and Rocinante, not much in the way of a horse, barked excitedly.
‘Help! Police! This man is trying to kill me!’ shouted the beggar.
Fortunately for him, a Policeman was passing, and seeing, not a chivalrous knight, but Optimus Prime wielding a samurai sword, promptly intervened.
‘What is going on here!’ he said.
‘Good Sir fellow knight,’ replied [P], noting the Policeman’s uniform and baton, and thinking them a suit of armour and a lance, ‘this impertinent Genii hath insulted me and I must defend my honour, as befitting a noble and brave knight errant.’
‘I think you’ll be coming with me, sir,’ said the unruffled policeman, who had seen much worse than this whilst on duty.
‘You want me to accompany you to your kingdom? I must assume there is a knight’s council taking place; or perhaps you need my help in fighting some giant, who hath enslaved your beloved? Pray wait until I have taken care of this small business, and I will do my duty and aid thee.’
Our hero made ready to swing his sword, and would have cut the poor beggar in two, had not the Policeman expertly brained him with his baton. As a result of the blow, [P] fell to the ground in a daze, his sword flung far from him; he was bleeding from the head. ‘Ah, foul double-crosser! Thou art in league with the Genii! In fact, thou art probably not a real knight at all, but a vision, a trick of this so powerful magician!’ Full of wrath, he tried to rise to his feet, and so the Policeman brained him again, and gave him a number of hard punches in the mug for good measure.
When [P] came round he found that he had been imprisoned in some sort of castle tower. His head hurt and his legs felt weak, both of which he attributed to having been given a potent potion, famous for sapping the strength of the most chivalrous and hardy knights. After a moment or two [P] collected his wits, and noticed that he was not alone in the cell, for a young lady was sat on the bench beside him.
‘O beauteous lady,’ he said. ‘O Princess, did the bad knight and the evil Genii capture you too?
‘Great. A crackhead,’ she muttered to herself.
‘Why, yes, they attempted to crack my head. You are unharmed, I trust?’
‘Lay off the pipe, man.’
‘Let me introduce myself, Princess,’ said [P] with a flourish.
‘The last guy who called me princess asked for a handjob and then broke my jaw.’
‘A villain! How could it be!’
‘Occupational hazard. I’m a hooker, love.’
‘Ann Hooker? I have not before heard of thee or the Hooker kingdom,’ replied [P] musingly. ‘I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance.’
‘What, as in Cervantes?’
Ah, does her knowledge surprise you? Can a prostitute not read?
‘Cervantes, my father?’
‘No, as in the author who wrote Don Quixote. I have a degree in English literature, you can’t fool me. So where is Sancho, DQ?’
‘Yeah, Sancho Panza, your sidekick, your foil. You have to have a Sancho. He’s the one who you promise the insula to.’
‘Yes. An island. At first it seems as though Sancho is stupid, that he is following you out of greed. But it becomes clear that, really, he is doing so out of friendship. To some extent, Don Quixote is a kind of buddy comedy. It’s quite moving, really, in that way. Anyway, you need a Sancho, because he, unlike you DQ, sees the truth of what you encounter, he…Oh oh oh, oh no…I’M YOUR SANCHO!’
‘Friend Sancho, why art thou dressed as a lady?’ said [P], for he now believed that the once-lovely vision he had seen before him was in fact his loyal squire. ‘Are you here to break me out of this castle prison?’
‘Oh no, listen, I expect to be paid for my services.’
‘I have promised you an insula,’ he replied with great seriousness.
‘Look, DQ, I see what you’re doing here. It’s all very quixotic. You know that word came from the book, right? Something excessively romantic. The modern world needs you, I get that. Ideals. Dedication to just causes. Ok. But have you tilted at windmills? That’s important. It’s a very famous scene.’
‘There are no windmills in the city.’
‘Exactly. And who is going to write your history? The real DQ had Cervantes. And, y’know, you can’t just ignore the fact that in the second half of the book he is famous, because the first part, Cervantes says, had spread word of his madness and adventures.’
‘Ah, I have this covered. I’ve set up a twitter account. You must follow me, Sancho!’
‘Right. And I guess you’ve already got the ‘is art dangerous’ angle covered. Uh, clearly it is dangerous; look at you! Y’know, Flaubert used that idea, or stole it if you like, for Madame Bovary. How much can art, books, whatever, influence you? It’s a fascinating question. They burn your books, y’know, your friends do.’
‘They what my what now? This is an outrage. I have a pristine hardcover copy of The Man Without Qualities!’
‘Gone, DQ. That kind of book gives people unsuitable ideas. What about the stories-within-stories stuff? Lots of that kind of thing in Don Quixote.’
‘Well, this was my first sally. I haven’t got around to all that yet. But I did meet this Ann Hooker lady, a beautiful Princess. Her story ought to be told.’
‘But Ann is Sancho, remember?’
‘Stop quibbling, Sancho. And, er, your bra strap is showing, please adjust it. I will tell the most interesting tale of how Sancho met Princess Ann, and persuaded her to swap costumes.’
‘Very good. But, I must warn you, that being DQ is very likely to cause you physical harm. Nabokov called the book crude and cruel, and, well, it is violent. DQ gets beaten up frequently.’
‘One must risk all to win all.’
‘Fair enough. But, y’know, the whole thing becomes repetitious, there’s no denying that. You’ll have to do the same sort of thing over and over again.’
‘Such is life, Sancho. I would rather encounter the same wonderful thing again and again than have terrible variety.’
‘You’ve become a philosopher, DQ.’
‘I am simply a knight, Sancho, but we knights do trust in our brains, as well as our arms, on occasion.’
‘You’re very good at this, I must say. That sounded just right. Ok, but one last thing, if you have read Don Quixote then you must be aware that what the hero of the book thinks he experiences isn’t real, that where he sees giants there are only windmills, and where he sees The Helmet of Mambrino there is only a barber’s bowl.’
‘Ah, Sancho, of course I know that. But isn’t life more beautiful if you approach it with a noble heart, with wonder and awe? I am not advocating that everyone ought to become Don Quixote, because to be him is to be insane, but one should have a little of his spirit in you. Isn’t that the book’s true message? Those batterings that he takes, which grouchy old Nabokov objected to, those are but the workaday world rapping you on the knuckles, telling you to settle, to be reasonable, to give up your ideals, to stop dreaming the impossible dream. Well, I tell you, friend Sancho, I tell all of you, to dream on, dream the fuck on.’