It is intriguing to think that at the same time William Shakespeare was writing plays in England, Miguel de Cervantes was writing Don Quixote in Spain. The two of them together transformed Western literature. Cervantes birthed the modern novel, influencing writers from Dickens and Dostoevsky to Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera.
The book was published in two parts, separated by some years and by a rip-off entitled The Second Volume of the Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha. The rip-off was published under the pseudonym Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda; the real identity has never been determined. The second volume by Cervantes was almost certainly a response to the “false Don Quixote” and an attempt to quash it, which it did.
It is this circumstance – the real and the false Don Quixotes – that novelist, essayist and poet Jaime Manrique uses to create the thoughtful, engaging and extraordinarily well-researched Cervantes Street. The novel is about a great work of literature and how it comes to be written, but it is also about passion, jealousy, rivalry, love and Spain, above all about Spain of the Golden Age, in all its supremacy, wonder and brutality, and the brutality of Spain’s Arabic enemies.
Cervantes Street is a kind of fictionalized biography, but it is also more than that. Some of what Manrique writes is speculation, because there are large gaps in what we know about the life of Cervantes. But enough is known, and much more on the history and culture of the era can be accessed and assimilated. And so Manrique succeeds in what every fiction writer hopes to do – he transports the reader to the time and life of its subject.
The novel is told from three viewpoints – Cervantes himself; his school friend Luis Lara; and Lara’s employee in government service and later personal secretary Pascual Paredes. Cervantes is unaware of the rage and jealousy he’s engendered in his friend; Lara is unaware of the disdain his personal secretary hold him in. Swirled together, it is a story of intrigue and suspense.
In a beginning note to readers, Manrique explains that he has “appropriated” certain scenes from various works by Cervantes, including Don Quixote. This was a common practice in the Golden Age; Cervantes himself “appropriated” scenes and materials from his own life and even the work of the “false” Don Quixote. This “appropriation” is not a wholesale borrowing or a kind of “inspired lifting” by Manrique, who shapes the scenes to fit his story.
Cervantes Street is inspired reading, resulting from inspired writing. It tells the story of a great author in his time, and helps us see ourselves in our own time.