Now, we have this man’s story. Nice, military guy, went to Middle-East. Got shot, serious injury in a hand; captured by the enemy, spent some time in prison in Northern Africa, where he was close to being beheaded. Finally he was released, went back home, wrote a book.
Now, you are thinking. About the man, who must be a SEAL or a DELTA, or likewise. A killer by trade. About the book, which Eastwood or Bigelow could be on the brink to adapt to the big screen. A thriller, all fights and blood and guts, maybe some introspective moments to depict the anguish of the war prisoner… He must be doing great now. Famous guy, Oprah, late night shows and the like.
Now, it would have possibly been that way. Suffering, then glitter. But this is now, and that was then: the man died four hundred years ago.
This man was no nephew of the Uncle Sam either. At that time, there were no United States of America, and the fight raging on the Middle East was between the Christian European princess and the Sublime Porte Sultan. He was a Spaniard, and his name was Miguel de Cervantes.
Born to a deaf barber-surgeon, Rodrigo, he spent his early years of which little is known, travelling around Spain with his family as his father did his trade (and tried, sometimes without success, to elude his creditors). Born in 1547, we know that by 1566 he was at Madrid, studying with López de Hoyos. Then, all of a sudden, in 1569 he fled to Italy, allegedly after a duel in which he wounded the other duelist, although the story is not confirmed.
Anyway, to Italy he went. Soon, he was serving in the Spanish Tercios as a soldier. And so he went to the sea and took part in one of the most famous battles of its time, at Lepanto, in 1571, where he took two arquebus shots in the chest and one in the left hand. After six months recovering in a hospital in Messina, Miguel had lost use of his left hand due to the complications of the wound, but was again ready to service. He kept raiding the Mediterranean shores with the Christian armies against the Ottomans for some years. Then when his ship was almost in sight of the Spanish coast, it was assaulted by a Turkish flotilla, and after a brisk fight, Miguel and his brother Rodrigo were taken prisoners among other members of the crew. Because he had in his power some impressive-looking letters of recommendation, he was believed to be a VIP (which he was not). Therefore a handsome ransom of 500 golden escudo was asked for; pity he was just a soldier. Maybe a good one, maybe he has caught the eye of the top-brass, but no way he or his family had that huge amount of cash (or connections strong enough to get it paid).
He was sent to Algiers and spent five years in captivity. There is some controversy about his days there. Seemingly he tried to escape no less than four times, but his adventures were thwarted by bad luck, traitors, a captured messenger…in between, Cervantes’ mother got some money to pay for her sons, but the money was not enough for both of them. Miguel, always the tough guy, stays in prison so his younger brother could go home…or so. Most of this we know because he himself wrote later about his years as a captive, so we may want to be…cautious about the veracity of his writings. He became, after all, one of the world’s greatest fable-spinners.
Nevertheless, he was finally freed, almost by chance. On the verge of being transported to Constantinople itself, were his fate would have been surely gloomy, he was released after a Trinidadian friar paid his ransom, partly with money collected amongst the Christian merchants in Algiers. So, in 1580, after eleven years and a lot of adventure and stories to tell, Miguel de Cervantes was bound to Spain again. And he was yet to discover even war heroes have hardships when returning home.
A spy job (maybe). A daughter (her mother was married to another man). A marriage (didn’t go well: childless, ended in a separation as divorced was strictly forbidden in the most catholic Spain). A desired position in the New World (never came). At least, first publication: La Galatea, a pastoral romance (not that popular, if you know what I mean)…
Finally, in 1587, a proper job as for the Army, provisioning food for the Spanish Armada. Extensive travel across the land. Finally lands in Seville in 1588, but having a place to stay and a steady job doesn’t improve his life that much. To begin with, he is excommunicated after requisitioning Church goods; then, he is transferred to the Exchequer as a tax collector, living among disputes and quarrels; finally, in 1597, as his father before him, he goes to prison.
Now, we find him imprisoned in the Royal Gaol, Seville. The bank when he was expected to put the tax money has bankrupted. The money is not there, or at least not all of it is there. Allegedly, he kept some for himself. While investigated, Miguel serves some months in jail; but, lucky us, while in there, he outlines a story that is going to bring him fame and fortune (albeit, unlucky Miguel, a little too late to enjoy the fortune part).
Somehow, then, he is released from prison by the end of 1597. Maybe he didn’t keep that much money for himself. The fact is that, at this point, fifty years old, not wealthy, with his prestige marred because of his legal troubles, he definitely turned to his real passion: theatre. More or less at the same time, one William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is doing magic in the theatrical scene in London; Miguel de Cervantes, again has no such luck. He is very keen on the classic style at a moment when not only Shakespeare, but also Lope de Vega in Spain were transforming the way theatre is written, and played, forever. Lope, by the way, is a seventeenth century rock star avant la lettre: instead of drugs and rock’n’roll there were money and theatre (seemingly, the sex was there indeed. He kidnapped his first wife, had countless lovers, and a womanizer reputation…). Even other playwrights, as for example Tirso de Molina, had the people’s favor, whilst Cervantes’ theatrical production was at the time considered quite obsolete at the time. He was probably regarded as a minor yet competent writer, but the money, the popularity for which surely Cervantes was craving didn’t arrive.
Anyway, that story he first thought of while in jail was taking shape. Some weird yet sympathetic tale about an old man and his servant. In an unexpected turn of events, the man thinks himself a knight and, craving for adventure, took the roads of deep, old, dusty Castilla in search of giants, evil-doers, bandits and the like, willing to offer his good deeds to his romantic interest, a damsel called Dulcinea. With the reluctant help of Sancho, Don Quixote goes on the loose. At some point, the tale is finished and Cervantes finally gets permission from the censors to publish it, what is done in 1605 to immediate success: only during that year the printers produced six editions, with the novel being translated into English in 1607, into French in 1614…At last, some luck for Miguel, the soldier, the adventurer, the tax collector, the prisoner, the playwright, the writer.
What a film, don’t you think? One can easily imagine say, Ryan Gosling as Cervantes, maybe even doubling as Don Quixote with some prosthetics and make-up…the Academy Award winner and all that…But this is now, and that was then. Media exposure was unknown, and there was no place for more than one big star (and that one was Lope). No Oscars then, no talk shows, no big money. Just some comfort, at long last. And more ideas coming. In his last years Cervantes also published the Exemplary Novels, in 1613, to a great success, and in 1615, the second part to Don Quixote on the wake of the publishing of the “Avellaneda’s Quixote”,attributed to a friend of Lope (again), in which Cervantes’ character was also the main one (plagiarism was a problem then as it is now. Even without Internet access). This second part is unanimously considered his best work, and his final legacy, setting the tone for the new novels all around the world, he that once was considered outdated because of his classical approach to theatre. Good joke, Mike.
Now, we have this man’s story. A tale full of adventures, search for glory, hardships, mishaps. Somewhat…quixotic, don’t you think so? And it was all for real. But he created a fiction so powerful that led us to forget the man behind the pen and paper. Miguel de Cervantes: soldier, POW, spy, tax collector, playwright, novelist. Dreamer.