Thursday, December 30, 2004

a character for the new year

Happy New Year is now just twenty four and something hours away.
So Happy New Year, everyone.

In a little over a month, I have to present something on Don Quixote and Terry Gilliam, as a prelude to a screening of 'Lost in La Mancha', at a Cervantes conference, in Delhi. (Don't even ask about how this transpired...)

Don Quixote is a fascinating character to ride into the new year with.
Living tall tales and tilting at windmills..

but what's the paper going to be about?
a month to go, and i've barely downloaded three articles from the 'journal of cervantes studies' via google scholar.

My friend and colleague Vivek Narayanan is fascinated by quixotic individuals and collectives in the twentieth century and twenty first centuries, so it is going to be about some of that...
like the Association of Blind Photographers.
(People who tilt at windmills/giants, creatively, are pretty important in the world that we live in, right?)

I am fascinated by the parrallels that I see between Don Quixote and the character of Mulla Nasrudddin, or Nasruddin Hodja, from Central Asian, Turkish and South Asian folklore... so it's going to be about that, too.

a connection between the wandering Mulla Nasruddin, both wise and foolish, and the wandering knight Don Quixote (ditto)... impossible?

think about it.
recalcitrant horses and donkeys are a constant motif in both narratives, though one is a canonical novel from sixteenth century, Christian Spain, and the other(s) is/are a collection of folk tales and legends from Central Asia and the Middle East, mutating since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
But Cervantes was writing a century after the Moors and Jews had been expelled from Spain, and fifty pages into the book, he tells us that he discovers the complelte history of Don Quixote in Toledo, written in the Arabic script by the Moorish historian Cid Hamet Benengeli. The history is then translated for him by a Morisco (a Muslim convert to Christianity) who he meets in the street of rag-sellers inToledo.
For a fascinating, moving account of this encounter, read the chapter titled 'Somewhere in La Mancha' in Maria Rosa Menocal's fascinating book, 'The Ornament of the World :How Jews, Muslims and Christians built a culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.'

(Spain had been part of the larger Islamicate cultural world, the Dar-al-Islam, from the eight century onwards. The Moors and Jews were expelled in 1492, in the year that Columbus 'discovered' America, funded by the Spanish court, and almost immediately statrted the process of wiping out the indigenous people of Dominica, via slavery and unmitigated barbarism in the search of Gold - thus inaugurating western modernity.)

So Cervantes could certainly known about the Hodja character and his journeys, which would have fit into the genre of the rihla, the travel account (like Ibn Batuta's travelogue, the most famous in the rihla genre...). Cervantes was also held captive by the Turks after the sea battle of Lepanto, wherein he lost his arm, so... a certian amount of cultural familiarity cannot be discounted.

So the paper is going to be, following Menocal, an attempt to see Don Quixote as a linking figure in two cultures which remember each other antagonistically.... and a figure against 'the Clash of Civilisations.'

And finally, the paper is going to be about The Holy Fool tradition in the modern world. The tradition(?) figures of fun who are visionaries. like Terry Giliam himself, from the crazy days of Monty Python to the bizzarely, beautifully apocalypitc Twelve Monkeys... Terry Gilliam, in a symbolic peice of Hollywood typecasting, dreamed of making 'The Man who Killed Don Quixote' for ten years, and when he finally got the funds, the whole shoot was such an unmitigated disaster (in scnes out of Don Quixote's worst misadventures) that he had to abandon the film after six days of shooting.... the results captured in the ultimate 'Behind the Scenes ' film, 'Lost in La Mancha': The un-making of Don Quixote.

So can anyone tll me now what the paper is about? Or can be about? Or should be about?
Because reading this, I don't have a clue!
Especially since, following tradition (as when Terry Gilliam decided to make the film, he hadn't yet read the book. As soon as he had read it, he thought it was impossible. But he went on to (try and)make the film anyway...)
And there's a month to go.

Impossible dreams. Quixotic dreams.
What good would a new year be without such dreams for company.

Comments and suggestions not just welcome, but solicted.
May your windmills be gigantic enough to tilt at.

Happy New Year.

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