"Don Quixote," the endearing tale of a mad, errant knight and his sidekick, Sancho Panza — described variously as the "universal novel" or the "bible of humanity" — celebrates its 400th birthday this week, kicking off a yearlong party for one of the world's most acclaimed literary works.
"It's a book that means all things to all people," said literature professor Howard Mancing of Purdue University in Indiana. "It's hard not to see yourself in Don Quixote and Sancho."
Middle-aged and unsuccessful, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra started "Don Quixote" in the late 1500s — some say during one of several spells in prison. The first of its two volumes came off the presses on Dec. 20, 1604, and went on sale on Jan. 16, 1605. Cervantes completed the second volume in 1615, a year before dying.
From Day 1, it's been a bestseller. Four centuries on, it's still ranked as the most published and translated book after the Bible.
"I've read thousands of novels but I've never read anything that I've wanted to come back to the way I do this one," Mancing said.
With astonishing unanimity, writers and readers praise it the world over. In 2002, a panel of 100 leading authors from 54 countries chose "Don Quixote" as the best book ever. It bagged 50 percent more votes than any other book.
The anniversary has bookshops overflowing with new editions, some with CD-ROMs, and complimentary texts. Institutes, universities and local authorities, meanwhile, promise an exhausting list of seminars, conferences, readings, adaptations, theater works, films and concerts in Spain, but also across the globe.
"This celebration will reach every public library in every corner," Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said. Companies are being given tax breaks to help promote the opus while schools have free new children's editions for their pupils.
"The most important tribute you can pay the book is to read it," said Calvo.
Easier said than done.
In the original, "Don Quixote" spans 126 chapters and nearly 1,000 pages. Written in archaic although beautifully crafted Spanish, it demands considerable patience and concentration. Translations and modern language adaptations lighten the task but even still, most people, Spaniards included, shy from it.
"Everyone has it on their bookshelves but not even a minority get through it," said Juan Victorio, medieval literature professor at Spain's National Open University who first read it to his bedridden, illiterate grandfather as a child.
Many are happy sticking to the greatly simplified and substantially doctored 1970s film version of the Broadway musical "Man of La Mancha," with the movie starring Peter O'Toole as the crazy knight and Sofia Loren as the beautiful Dulcinea.
"Most people in Japan have never read it, but they know Don Quixote. They love his adventures," said Mika Kudo, a 35-year-old Japanese tourist guide, as her group took snaps and shot each other on video beside the bronze statues of the famous knight and his partner in Madrid's Plaza de Espana.
"It's by no means impossible to read," defends Edward Friedman, a Spanish professor and Cervantes expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "It's a great pleasure, but it's good to read it with someone or something guiding you."
Victorio maintains that "one needs be in a certain mental state...to have suffered at life's hands" before taking on Quixote.
A fusion of reality and fantasy, the plot covers the journeys and adventures of Don Quixote and his mule-straddling squire, Sancho Panza. Alonso Quijano is an ordinary gentleman who, after soaking himself in the stories of knights errant — all the rage in the 16th century — decides to become one himself and, taking on the name of Don Quixote de La Mancha, he mounts his nag, Rocinante, and sallies forth from a nameless village in the heart of Spain to right wrongs and protect the oppressed.
He is obviously crazy. He mistakes inns for enchanted castles, and their peasant girls for beautiful princesses. He confuses windmills with oppressive giants and dreams up Dulcinea, the beautiful damsel to whom he has pledged love and fidelity.
Sancho knows his master is off square but sticks by him. Both characters change and develop as they wind their way across Spain. In the end, Quixote senses the folly of his actions and returns home sadly to die.
"Its message is you're either mad or you'll end up mad," Victorio said. "If you have goodness in your heart and want to help humanity you have to pretend you're mad for them to pay you any attention."
The book is interpreted as both a slapstick farce and an opus of great philosophical and aesthetic worth. However, it's never been clear if Cervantes was writing sawed-off shotgun style or aiming to craft a masterpiece.
In fact, much about Cervantes remains a mystery. A man of no formal schooling, he was 58 when the book came out. His precise birthday and birthplace are unknown, as are the whereabouts of his remains.
His nomadic life was a tale of hardship that took him from the battle fields of Lepanto, where he crippled his left arm, to five years as a hostage in Algeria. He later roamed Spain as a tax collector and civil servant for the Spanish Armada, all the time trying to write plays, poems and novels. By 1605, he'd taken a good battering from life.
"What's most amazing about the novel is that despite its humor and playfulness and literary strength, it's really a novel about how people approach life and reality," Friedman said.
"Just think: People like me are still sitting around trying to write new articles on 'Don Quixote' 400 years later," he said. "Its beauty is that it lends itself to so much examination and reexamination ... . It's so rich, so full of ideas."