Frederick A. DE ARMAS,
Don Quixote among the Saracens:
A Clash of Civilizations and Literary Genres,
Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2011, xvi + 237 pp.
Reseña de Julio Baena
University of Colorado at Boulder
In the Preface to this book (about Don Quixote I, not II), De Armas links the knight’s choosing or discarding of paths to the choosing or discarding of genres. To keep a card or discard it, one must know the entire deck, one’s hand, everybody else’s, and the rules of the game. This is what De Armas has in abundance: erudition; knowledge of all the genres, and books that may have been used as models or raw materials for Don Quixote. And only an erudite Cervantes could have written the Quixote that De Armas reads. This is the limitation of this book: its power of conviction rests heavily on this assumed erudition shared by both. De Armas is privy to a secret that Cervantes had told nobody else.
Both De Armas and Cervantes enjoy “pitting” genres, and models of genres, against each other. Favoring Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso against Amadís de Gaula, and the Moor Medoro against the Christian Orlando, while making the pastoral engage a profound battle with the epic, or the picaresque. That the Quixote is “a clash of genres” is nothing new in Cervantine criticism; that this clash hides the deepest secret of the book is, indeed new, and important, and it needed to be said. I de-emphasize, however, the One-ness of that secret: there is a splendid irony in this book when it shows a multiplicity of secrets congregating, as snowflakes in a blizzard, or as witches in a Sabbath. It is a Todorovian secret, but it is a shattered mirror. Analyzing the last part of the book, De Armas sees Don Quixote unburdened with that secret: “out of the closet” (164), but also in a Saturnian oxen-driven chariot, an ironic space of castration.
Don Quixote can only acquire this thymos (165) in the most unlikely place: among the Saracens, in the peace that King Sobrino and Agramante attain, and wearing the also Moorish Helmet of Mambrino which “makes him whole” (161).
De Armas divides the Quixote I into five parts. This “fifth element” or quintessence fights with the ever-present quaternity in Pythagorean fashion. De Armas’ book is a compact meta-narrative of the Quixote (22), focused on a few very interesting threads (and a discussion on the meaning of “thread” itself). The Quixote mirrors the Spanish Empire like its hero mirrors the Emperor Charles V: Plus Ultra. Several impasses or “Pillars of Hercules” impede its progression, so another path (genre) has to be taken by both Don Quixote and De Armas. Complex parodies are the navigational tools used by Cervantes. Even when the object of pursuit is a ghost, irony informs the novel from funny to serious and back. Belianís—where we find the Saracen Empire of Trapisonda— de-centers Amadís. De Armas—thank goodness—does not use “revisionist” editions of the Quixote such as Rico’s. He stays with the problematic, discordant, and “erroneous” ones, such as Murillo’s, which do not try to second-guess “errors” like “Quejana” making it “Quijana” in the name of Monolithism. An Arab-originated “Quejana”, for example, explains part of the secret: the double-cultural ambiguity of the protagonist. Everywhere are found Moorish words, places, clues: Cide Hamete, the translator, and Dulcinea, the innkeeper, are Saracens. A tetragrammaton common to three religions, but not Catholic, informs the dispositio of the Quixote, of which the hero is a madman who specializes in attacking men of the Christian cloth. The “humid” world of pastoral begins in the market streets of Toledo. It is “a subterfuge for [dry] epic.” (76). Sierra Morena becomes a text(ile)—a tangle of threads—which silences Don Quixote in a quagmire of laws, and lands—just like Spain itself—. It is only after the story of Zoraida (“a play of mirrors [. . .] which asks not only who is [. . .] the most Christian, but also who is the cruelest”—133) that Don Quixote regains his voice, but as the king of the Saracens, not the melancholy, yellow Charles V anymore. Don Quixote’s secret: “he desires a woman whom he knows to be of a non-Christian family” (155); he cannot “touch” her; he cannot forget her. Don Quixote is not Orlando to Angelica: he is Medoro: himself escaping from himself with a stain (mancha). Nevertheless, De Armas’ interest is not to show a possible converso or morisco Cervantes, but to see in him, or in Cide Hamete, the de-covering agent of a clash. It is after all Michael, the Archangel (Cervantes’ first name) who had brought discord, and Agramante, the Moor, who, with King Sobrino, restores peace (158). Clash, indeed: of civilizations, of genres, and of fallen—and falling—angels that play havoc with the Pythagorean quaternities.
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