“(…) but in some palaces jesters fare better than sensible people.” – Cervantes, Exemplary Novels
The year 2016 commemorates 400 years since the death of both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. To many people, Cervantes is remembered only for his masterpiece, Don Quixote. Nevertheless, the story of Cervantes himself is an interesting one, full of twists of fate and gestures of genius.
During the time of Cervantes, there was a famous Spanish saying that went: ‘Iglesia, mar o casa real’ (Church, Sea or Royal House), meaning that commoners with no noble titles could only improve their chances in life and their status by joining the clergy, seeking wealth through adventure at the sea, or attaching themselves to some noble house. Cervantes was no exception: In 1571 he joined the Spanish forces that, leading the fleet of the Holy League, fought and defeated the Ottoman Empire’s fleet in the Battle of Lepanto.
Cervantes suffered a serious injury during the Battle, causing him to lose use of his left arm, and earning him the rather cruel and inaccurate nickname of ‘El Manco de Lepanto’ (the one-armed man of Lepanto). To add insult to injury, he was taken captive a few years later on his way back and taken to Algeria, where he spent 5 years in prison. He tried every trick to escape, but he was only released thanks to –indirect- divine intervention: the Trinitarian Order saved Cervantes, a Catholic order that redeemed Christian captives in Muslim lands through offering its own members as ransom.
In addition to his masterpiece (Don Quixote), Cervantes was –in his own words- the first Spanish writer to introduce the novella in Spain after the success that it enjoyed in Italy thanks to Boccaccio. A crucial figure of Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’ (Spanish Golden Age), his novellas combine the use of farce, satire and picaresque characters in both realistic and idealized settings dotted with gypsies, picaros, moriscos, witches, and impossible loves.
Below is a selection of quotes from Cervantes’ highly entertaining and highly recommended ‘Novelas Ejemplares’ (Exemplary Novels):
“it seems to me that love’s impulses go unchecked until they meet with reason or disillusionment.”
“Hare-hunting is very pleasurable, especially when the hounds are borrowed.”
“Good painters imitated nature while bad ones vomited it.”
“It suits me better to be a hypocrite than a self-confessed sinner: the illusion of my present good works is gradually erasing my past misdeeds from the memory of those who know me. Indeed, false sanctity harms no one except those who practice it.”