Julian Evans . Quixote's Ride

What is a literature? In Spain 's case the answer seems more self- evident than it might for other countries, or languages. Something unconsciously evolved and something consciously invented both walk its unsoftened, fantastic landscape together. From the eleventh-century jarchas of al-Andalus and the Cantar de Mio Cid to García Lorca's Romancero Gitano, Spain's identity found its most obvious form in apparent spontaneity. Even in the 1950s, the British writer Norman Lewis recalled, the fishermen of Tossa on the Costa Brava where he lived still gathered at the end of the working day to relate the day's fishing to each other in blank verse.

And then, in the middle the Spanish Golden Age, in Madrid in 1605, there also appeared the most confected and invented of characters, Miguel De Cervantes' ingenioso hidalgo, Don Quixote. There had been others before him, picaros like Lazarillo de Tormes or Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, but the Quixote is the Cid of them all, icon of everything in humanity that is calamitously idealistic, renowned for his kindness and foolishness, for his unintended comedy and his refusal to be disenchanted, for imperviousness to ridicule or failure, for clairvoyant lunacy and obstinate Romanticism in a rotten, factual world.

For 124 chapters he seeks to live up to the pastoral ideal of the knight errant, that fiction of the good man. Only in the 126th and final chapter does he acknowledge the “absurdities and deceptions” of the books that inspired him and, in an ending of unbearable sadness, finally renounce his world of fantasy, return to his senses, and die.

For 400 years the Quixote has supplied us with the outermost comic landmark of our idealism and the archetype of the modern novel. A hundred writers recently voted it the “best and most central work” in literature, eclipsing the plays of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky's novels, Homer's epics. Yet in one sense it was catastrophic for Spanish

literature: while its popularity challenged other European writers to follow Cervantes' blueprint (Lesage in France, Fielding and Sterne in England, Kleist in Germany), its overwhelming success silenced Spanish novel-writing for two and a half centuries.

A few years ago I travelled to Spain to make the first programme of a BBC radio series about the origins and evolution of the European novel. Even in the twenty-first century, the Spanish novelists I talked to preferred to emphasise other influences. For Javier Marías, author of El hombre sentimental (The Man of Feeling) and the trilogy Tu rostro mañana (Your Face Tomorrow), his tutor was not Cervantes but Sterne, for “the way he deals with time, the enormous freedom”.

Antonio Muñoz Molina, the author of El invierno en Lisboa (Winter in Lisbon), told me he had got much of his Cervantes from Flaubert. “If you read Flaubert, if you read Bouvard and Pécuchet, you're reading Cervantes without even knowing you're reading him.”

The Catalan novelist Eduardo Mendoza, author of El Año del Diluvio (The Year of the Flood), one of the most moving novels of the post- Franco era, was not sure who had influenced him. At the age of eleven, some of his favourite books had been the Spanish translations of Richmal Crompton's Just William stories. But who is William Brown, you might say, except Quixote? Who are Ginger and Jumble, but Sancho and Rocinante? And who Violet Elizabeth Bott, but the wondrous Dulcinea, “mistress of my most hidden thoughts”?

The Quixote's presence is pervasive: we are impregnated by it, in Spain and out. So pervasive that it contains us, as the critic Harold Bloom wrote in his introduction to Edith Grossman's marvellous new English translation (2004) – “it so contains us that, as with Shakespeare, we cannot get out of it”. So pervasive that we tend to believe we are kith to the knight – the English seem to feel especial sympathy for follies committed in the name of loyalty to an outmoded code of conduct.

And so pervasive that those who claim a part of Cervantes himself are beyond number. His birthplace may have been the medieval university town of Alcalá de Henares – or was it the smaller, dustier Alcázar de San Juan, where I read the beautifully bound and dog-eared parish record for 1558, one of a handful which had not been burnt in the Civil War, on a page of which a secretary of Philip III had scribbled in the margin “this was the baptism of Miguel, who later became the author of Don Quixote”? At Argamasilla de Alba, in the middle of La Mancha, is the prison cell where Cervantes is supposed to have begun composing the first chapters – unless it was in two other possible places; and when he died in 1616, he may have been buried in the Convent of the Holy Trinity in Madrid – though if you ask the priest, he will tell you he is not there. And so on.

What is certain is that, in literary terms, the Quixote belongs to all its claimants, because, in one guise or another, inviting us to recognise and understand the difference between appearance and reality, it makes the world legible.

Which, surely, is what makes a literature; writing that, in whatever terms you define the world, allows you to read not only the text in front of you, but also what you see when you raise your head from the page.

The books recommended by the New Spanish Books panel this spring accord, I think, with that definition, offering both ambitious readings of the world and a wide definition of it. Wide in its physical and moral geography – there are novels that travel to the far Spanish-speaking world and beyond, and to the frontiers of human behaviour – and in its history: with much still to be said about the Civil War and its aftermath, there are works on four poets of the war and fiction that interrogates the divisions that make, and are made by, all wars. There is a beguiling children's story, a sumptuous tapas cookery book, a rival to Richard Dawkins on religion. And in the background – still audible after four centuries – there is the clop of slow hoofbeats and distant jangle of armour, the sound of voices, one sonorous, hoarse and indignant, the other rational and resigned, in eternal dispute. Quixote rides.