"...I don't plan to earn my fame by being brave but by being the best and most loyal squire who ever served a knight-errant..." – Sancho Panza.
[A high school student reads at the podium while the next volunteer receives her assignment. Photo by Sue Burke.]
For the past 14 years, to celebrate the anniversary of Cervantes' death (actually, his interment) on April 23, the Círculo de Bellas Artes of Madrid organizes a marathon reading of Don Quijote de la Mancha. Each volunteer reads a short portion of the work. I volunteered in 2008 and again this year.
I arrived at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, a seven-story cultural center in downtown Madrid, a little before 10 a.m. on a warm, sunny spring day. The sidewalk and the lobby were bustling, and TV news crews busily recorded the scene. I recognized two prominent Spanish politicians on my way to fifth-floor Hall of Columns where the reading was taking place. April 23 was World Book Day, and a cultural center was the place to be seen.
I registered in the lobby outside the hall. Some readers and groups pre-register, and some like me walk in off the street. The volunteers handed me my volunteer-off-the-street ticket, Number 176, and apologized. "It will take a long time to get to that number, an hour, maybe more."
One of them pointed out an electronic display board and explained that they were all over the building including the cafés. He said they would alert me when my number was coming up if I wanted to go relax elsewhere. I said I would enjoy watching the reading. He apologized again because the hall, with more than 100 seats, was filled to standing-room-only.
But I had read two years ago and expected all this. I went into the hall and found a comfortable place to stand. The brightly lit stage held a table and lectern. Above it was projected an old movie version of Don Quijote. At the dimly lit sides of the hall, technicians managed equipment for Radio Círculo and Instituto Cervantes TV, and staff organized the readers waiting to go on stage.
On the podium, high school students were reading the sonnets at the end of Part One with varying degrees of confidence as their friends in the audience snapped photos. Each volunteer read until the woman who was assigning the readings said "Muchas gracias." Then the reader stepped off the stage to applause, and it was the next volunteer's turn.
At the start of Part Two, Chapter II, the Cervantes Institute connected to its Pekin branch, where three people active in Spanish literature – Dong Yanshen, Fan Hong Yu, and Xu Ying – each read a section. They spoke Spanish with good accents.
The reading returned to the room. A few VIPs slipped in among the students, along with some volunteers from the street. At the start of Chapter IV, Radio Círculo connected to the Madrid Women's Penal Institute, where two inmates read.
At 11:15, my number came up. I signed in, and then sat next to the woman assigning the readings. She followed along in a large-print text as the person ahead of me read. When he reached the end of a sentence, she said, "Muchas gracias." It was my turn.
The book on the podium was the same large-print edition. My section began with the words "Yo, señor Sansón" halfway down the page in the middle of a line. I found it and began reading with as much inflection as I could, though I was reading only a half-word ahead of where my finger was following the text.
I reached the end of the long sentence. "Muchas gracias," the woman said, and I stepped down from the stage to applause.
I remained to listen to Chapter V. Most of the high school students had left. The Ambassador of Ireland read a few paragraphs; so did another VIP and a lot of ordinary people.
When I left the hushed hall for the busy lobby, I got a gift of a paper doll reading a book from the Guild of Madrid Booksellers. Downstairs, in the even more busy main entrance, a television displayed someone reading from Chapter VI. Sixty-eight chapters remained.
Here's the section I read:
"...Yo, señor Sansón, no pienso granjear fama de valiente, sino del mejor y más leal escudero que jamás sirvió a caballero andante; y si mi señor don Quijote, obligado de mis muchos y buenos servicios, quisiere darme alguna ínsula de las muchas que ha de topar por ahí, recibiré mucha merced en ello; y cuando no me la diere, nascido soy, y no ha de vivir el hombre en hoto de otro, sino de Dios; y más, que tan bien y aun quizá mejor me sabrá el pan desgobernado que siendo gobernador; ¿y sé yo por ventura si en esos gobiernos me tiene aparejada el diablo alguna zancadilla donde tropiece y caiga y me haga las muelas?..."
"...I, Senor Samson, don't plan to earn my fame by being brave but by being the best and most loyal squire who ever served a knight-errant; and if my master Don Quixote, in consideration of my many fine services, is pleased to give me some island of the many that must be around these parts, I will take it as a great favor; and if he does not give it to me, I was born to suffer, and a man must not live depending on others, only on God; and what is more, my bread will taste as good and perhaps even better without a government than if I were a governor; how do I know but that in these governments the devil may have prepared some trick to make me trip and fall and knock out my molars?..."