An honest fiction

A Reading Note

In which truth emerges from fiction, and fiction from truth:

This is Don Quixote’s underlying concern: not to ignore society’s atrocities, not to allow those in power to bear false witness, and, above all, to chronicle the things that happen. And if, to get to the truth, Don Quixote must retell reality in his own literary vocabulary, so be it. Better to see windmills as giants than to deny the existence of windmills absolutely. Fiction, in Cervantes’s case, is the way of telling the truth when Spain had decided to rebuild its own history on a lie, the lie of a pure, uncontaminated Christian kingdom, barely a century after the expulsion of the Jews and the Arabs, and at a time of the banishment of all Arab and Jewish converts. For that reason, in order to denounce the fictional reality, Cervantes invents an honest fiction and tells the reader that he is not the father but merely the stepfather of Don Quixote, that the real author is a certain Cide Hamete Benegali, an Arab scholar, one of the supposedly disappeared people, so that credulous readers will believe the book they hold in their hands is merely a translation from a tongue long banned in the realm. Fiction, Cervantes implies, must reveal the deceit of an identity in which Spanish history attempts to clothe itself, an identity cleansed of any Jewish or Arab influence, an identity that need not question or take itself to task because it is supposed to be cloaked in Christian purity. Innocent as the boy in [Hans Christian] Andersen’s tale, Don Quixote points his sword at that identity and shouts: “But it is naked!”

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 98

This, of course, is why we have fiction; not as an escape from what is real, but as a means to that reality. Fiction can often reveal more of the truth than the facts themselves.

Related books

A Reader on Reading

Alberto Manguel

A series of essays from the author of A History of Reading that explores the reader’s perspective.

Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes

Almost certainly the greatest novel ever written, and an early precursor to postmodernism.