Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Book # 992



 “I have seen no book of chivalry that creates a complete tale, a body with all its members intact, so that the middle corresponds to the beginning, and the end to the beginning and the middle; instead, they are composed with so many members that the intention seems to be to shape a chimera or a monster rather than to create a well-proportioned figure. Furthermore, the style is fatiguing, the action incredible, the love lascivious, the courtesies clumsy, the battles long, the language foolish, the journeys nonsensical, and, finally, since they are totally lacking in intelligent artifice, they deserve to be banished, like unproductive people, from Christian nations.”

As this long quotation from Don Quixote makes clear, romantic books of chivalry are terrible. So author Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in 1605 to satirize the form. And he does it well, taking each negative about books of chivalry he lists and, through comedy and wordplay, turning it into a positive. The result is a long, epic novel in two parts that is about chivalry but anything but terrible. After all, “The benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?

While very over the top, Don Quixote is a wonderful reading experience. Don Quixote is a fantastic character, with a stubborn streak that lets him truly believe in his own inventions. He even manages to convince one other person, his squire Sancho Panza: “Sancho Panza is one of the most amusing squires who ever served a knight errant; at times his simpleness is so clever that deciding if he is simple or clever is a cause of no small pleasure.

Sancho was my favorite character. He waxes and wanes between knowing his master is crazy and utterly believing in his inventions and adventures. Sancho is somewhat prone to malapropism, but not to the extent of, say, Mrs. Slipslop in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews. His more extensive verbal tendency is using endless proverbs, some more apt than others in any given situation. Here’s an example of Sancho’s speech: “Because in a well-stocked house, supper is soon cooked; and if you cut the cards, you don’t deal; and the man who sounds the alarm is safe; and for giving and keeping, you need some sense.

Sancho keeps things moving, adding humor to situations where Don Quixote’s ridiculousness might just seem sad. Above all, I loved the scenes where Sancho carried out his duties as ‘governor.’

I did feel that the novel could have been shorter – some of Don Quixote’s adventures are a bit repetitive. He basically attacks anyone and anything, demanding they admit his beloved Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman in the world – there are only so many ways to make this amusing. I also found the ending a bit of a let-down; it was clear that Cervantes just wanted to make certain no one else would ever write about Don Quixote. That said, this is a 400-year-old novel – it’s literally exemplary.


The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter – Anonymous

TToTBCThis is a very short folktale from 10th century Japan.  So short that it is rather hard to describe without telling you the whole tale.

At a whole 5 and a smidgen pages in length, in the only edition I could get my hands on, it had to share the book with stories from Cicero, Lucian and Voltaire amongst others.

Many of the motifs will be very familiar from folk tales and creation myths, far and wide.  It is also touted as one of the first, if not the first, science fiction story.

It starts with a poor bamboo cutter going about his daily work.  He and his wife have no children.  One evening, lo and behold, he sees a fabulous light shining nearby.  On investigation he finds a baby girl small enough to fit on the palm of his hand.  Naturally he takes her home and raises her as his daughter.  They name her Lady Kaguya.

Is this sounding familiar?  Lots of modern stories feature that particular motif, not looking at anyone in a funny suit and cape at all.

As she is not of this world we find that Lady Kaguya grows quickly (a few months) from a baby to a beautiful young woman.  Cue the romantic and quest section of the folktale.  Young men and their desire to see her beautiful face wears thin and in the end the bamboo cutter is left trying to dissuade only five noblemen.  Each is given an impossible quest.

Eventually the Emperor hears of her and requests that she come to the palace.  Unfortunately she will, apparently, die if she leaves the bamboo cutter’s home so the Emperor (bless him) comes to her.  Naturally, as folk tales go, he falls in love with her but she cannot leave her home and so he resigns himself to leaving.

After some time Lady Kaguya becomes pensive and sad whenever she looks up at the moon.  Eventually she explains that she is not from Earth, but from the Moon and is soon to have other Moon People come to take her home.

Mystified, her father asked her why she had come to Earth.  Lady Kaguya explained that there had been a great war on her world, and that she had been sent to Earth for her own safety.  Now that the war was over, she would have to go home.

Sound vaguely familiar, anyone?

And eventually this does come to pass.  Lady Kaguya’s people come down in a bright cloud, descend from a strange craft and with a little hey presto magic and an Elixir of Immortality she is whipped off back to her people.

I would not be exaggerating to say that it took longer to write this review than it did to read the tale.

To our modern ears the familiarity of extra-terrestrial beings as fictional characters makes it seem a small and unimpressive story, but in the context of 10th century Japan it must have been really quite radical to introduce other-worldliness into a tale.  If you find it in a book of folk tales, it is a nice way to see the beginnings of many themes that make their way through to modern science fiction.

Happy reading everyone.

April Update

7 books reviewed
138 books in total
863 books to go

April saw the review of Book #1 on the list: Never Let Me Go. This means we now have reviewed the very first book on the list, and the very last (Aesop’s Fables)…as well as a few in between.

Reviews for An Artist of the Floating World, Smiley’s People, The Little Prince, Absalom, Absalom, The 39 Steps and The Tree of Man mean we have reviewed 92 books from the 1900s. Given that this is the section with the largest number of entries, we do have a way to go, but this seems to be our most popular century to review!

Never Let Me Go is the only book from the 2000s that we reviewed in April (although it is the second Kazuo Ishiguro novel reviewed this month, along with An Artist of the Floating World), bringing the number of books reviewed from the 2000s to 18.

We have reviewed 20 books from the 1800s, three from the 1700s, and five from pre-1700s.

I wonder – is it the age of these entries that put us off, or their accessibility (both physically and literary)? Or is it more that we are simply attracted to the more recent works? Something to ponder, as eventually, we won’t be able to hide from the 1800s and earlier any longer!

The Princess of Clèves – Madame de Lafayette

Book #990

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

Welcome to the convoluted and twisted world of the French court in the time of Henri II, perhaps a man as well known for his wife, Catherine de Medici or his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.    It will help you to understand who is whom in the royal families of France, Spain and Scotland; as well as some grip on the varying positions at the court of France.

When I began reading this small work, I thought it was going to be a tooth-pulling experience.  A great part of the starting section is dedicated to identifying who is allied with whom, related to whom and wanting to do down whom.  You must also get used to the convention (in my translation, at least) of Madame XYZ or rather M.XYZ rather than the title of the person being described.  This is not quite as awkward as it sounds, but does take a little thought at first.

Nearly all the characters mentioned, with the exception of the eponymous Princesse de Cleves, is a real historical figure.  And seriously, it seems like life at court was one great big soap opera.  Modern day television writers are sure to be well inspired by reading this.

So, the characters here are the Prince and Princess de Cleves, the Duc de Nemours, the King, the Queen, the Queen-Dauphine (later Mary, Queen of Scots – all of 16 at the time of the novel’s setting), the Duchess of Valentinois (Diane de Poitiers), the Vidame de Chartres and sundry other characters who move the story along.

It is principally a love story, with a moral twist.   The Princess (as Mademoiselle de Chartres) marries the Prince at about the age of sixteen when her mother brings her to court to find a good husband (position and wealth).  Unfortunately for the young woman, after she is married she gets to meet the charming, witty, handsome and accomplished Duc de Nemours.  They fall in love and the story follows their rather crooked path.

It is, apparently, France’s first historical novel and is considered to be one of the earliest psychological novels.  We are certainly treated to a lot of what goes through the Princess’ mind regarding her conflicting feelings of love for the Duc and respect for her husband.  The internal struggle of goodness and morality over love and passion pretty much sum up the majority of the novel.

Despite its age, and perhaps the age of my translation (by Nancy Mitford), it was a remarkably easy read.  I did find the moral question plaguing the Princess to be somewhat overdone, after all there was description after description of the affairs going on around the love triangle.  If anything it feels as though she was aiming to be the exception to the rule.  And it is only after reading the novel and reminding yourself of the realities of the time does it occur to you that Madame de Lafayette is ostensibly describing the life of a sixteen year old.  That realisation is quite an eye-opener, rather than the young woman’s struggle to maintain her set of morals in the face of high passion.

I can’t, in good conscience, suggest that you should head out and get a copy.  However, it is not overly difficult and would probably be of interest if you understand the historical periods it is set in (and written in) or generally enjoy historical novels.

Monkey: A Journey to the West – Wu Cheng’en

Book #989a

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

I think I need a short disclaimer before I start this review.  When I was a child we were lucky enough to have the Japanese television show Monkey shown here.  And as an adult I still have some videos (yes, those funny things that old people used to watch or record on before DVDs) from that series.  Therefore when I came to reading the book version I happen to own, I also brought pre-conceived notions of what it was going to be like.

Like all pre-conceived notions, some were reinforced while others were altered beyond recognition.  So, I will start with some basic background information.

Journey to the West is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, but in the west it is often referred to as Monkey.  Two of the other three Chinese classics also feature on the 1001 List – Book 997 a. The Water Margin and Book 998 a. Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The work is definitely picaresque. Monkey is nothing, if not a rogue. It is an allegory of the journey to enlightenment as well as an adventure story, a fictionalised version of an historical event and a folk tale all wrapped up in one. So you get mythology, fantasy and adventure.

The main characters are Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and Kuan Yin. They have a variety of proper Chinese names, but for simplicity we will stick with the colloquial version for the review.

Monkey is a divine being created from a stone egg. He awakens and begins his adventures in annoying everyone and everything from the celestial palace downwards. He learns the Taoist arts, especially transformation, combat and immortality. He is even cheeky enough and clever enough to insist on a great name for himself, “Great Sage Equal to Heaven”, which takes him in to conflict with the Taoist deities. He is violent and uses force as one of his means of achieving his goals. Eventually he is trapped and subdued by Buddha for this and is put under a mountain for hundreds of years.

After we get to know Monkey through his growth and increased roguery we are introduced to each of the pilgrims, starting with the monk, Tripitaka. The Buddha instructs Kuan Yin to find someone in China to travel to the west in order to collect the Buddhist sutras to take back and enlighten the east. Hence the story’s name – Journey to the West. Tripitaka starts his journey along the Silk Road between China and India, and we begin a series of adventures most of which involve devils and demons rather than real people.

Monkey is the first of the disciples to appear at this stage of the story. Then comes Pigsy, who was previously the Marshal of the Heavenly Canopy but was banished for misbehaviour with the moon goddess during a heavenly banquet. He embodies the insatiable appetite, and while a reliable fighter is also fairly lazy and tries to avoid working if he can.

The third disciple is Sandy, a river ogre, who was previously the celestial Curtain Lifting General and was banished for dropping and breaking a crystal goblet belonging to the Queen Mother of the West. He is the straight man for both Pigsy and Monkey in the satire.
The fourth disciple is a son of the Dragon King of the Western Sea, who is sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s great pearl. He is a fairly minimal character as he generally appears as the white horse that Tripitaka rides.

After a series of trials, tribulations, adventures, fighting, subduing and a variety of cunning subterfuges, the travelers eventually reach Vulture Peak, where Tripitaka receives the scriptures from the living Buddha. The return journey is glossed over and each of the five pilgrims receives rewards for their efforts.

I read the version of Journey to the West retold by David Kherdian, but I would suggest doing some research on which edition, and telling, is the most fluid reading. I found this telling to be a bit dry, despite all of the goings on and the wonderful reproduction woodblock images from an 1830s Japanese version. You may also be wise to invest in some paper and a pen to keep all the key deities in order, and perhaps Wikipedia open, if you are not familiar with the different gods of the Taoist pantheon.

What I did find extremely charming is the descriptive names and titles. For example:

“The Jade Emperor was sitting on his throne in the Treasure Hall of Divine Mists in the Cloud Palace of Golden Arches, surrounded by his immortal ministers, civil and military.”


“It is located in India, where the Buddha dwells, in the Great Temple of Thunderclap of the Great Western Heaven.”

or referring to six heavily armed bandits,

“If you really don’t know who we are, we will tell you. We are called Eye that Sees and Delights, Ear that Hears and Grows Furious, Nose that Smells and Covets, Tongue that Tastes and Desires, Mind that Conceives and Lusts, and Body that Supports and Suffers.”

It is fair to say that the allegory is reasonably visible throughout even without a great deal of understanding of Taoist, Confucian or Buddhist philosophy. However, I think it quite likely that the ease of reading and enjoyment will be determined by the translation you choose.  I didn’t find it particularly onerous reading, other than getting to grips with who is who amongst the Jade Court and how they all fit in.    But then I was predisposed to like it.  If you have an interest in Eastern philosophy then it is a must read.