Miguel de Cervantes may not have invented metafiction, but he did take it to the next level when he wrote The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, one of the first—and still one of the best—modern novels. Cervantes published part one in 1605 and part two in 1615.
I was forunate enough to read this book for the first time in Alcalá de Henares, the town in which Cervantes was born, and where all of his contemporaries studied. I went into my reading expecting to be bored to tears, but having the book put in historic and social context made me realize that the Quixote is about much, much more than a lunatic chasing windmills. Not only is it a story within a story, but a story within a story within a story, and Cervantes uses that story within a story within a story to create a hilarious social commentary.
Cervantes begins the book with who we eventually learn is Character-Cervantes, the narrator. He writes as if he’s telling the story directly to you, as if it’s a legend. In fact, he’s not even sure what the main character’s real name originally was. Quexana? Quesada? Accounts differ (Chapter I). He sets it up to be a grand tale akin to a Greek epic poem, but in Chapter VIII, when Don Quixote is in the middle of a battle to the death, the story stops.
“But it spoils all, that at this point and crisis the author of the history leaves this battle impending, giving as excuse that he could find nothing more written about these achievements of Don Quixote than what has been already set forth.”
In Chapter IX, Character-Cervantes relates how he discovered the rest of the legend of our brave knight in a marketplace, written in Arabic on some old papers. He tells us the papers were written by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, and that a friend translated them into Spanish. So now, it is Benengeli who tells the story, although Character-Cervantes interjects every so often.
In 1614, someone writing under the pseudonym Avellaneda put out a second Don Quixote book that heavily criticized Cervantes and the world he’d created. While Don Quixote is certainly farcical, it is, at its core, an intelligent look at the Spanish obsession with novellas caballerscas—adventure novels about knights.
It is possible, even probable, that Cervantes would have never finished part two without the Avellaneda book.
In the true second volume of The Quixote, Don Quixote’s niece and housekeeper lock him up in the house so he can’t wander off again. But one day Sancho comes over and informs his master that Samson Carrasco has just returned from his studies with a book entitled The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha—and most of Spain has read it, and loved it (Chapters II and III).
“…Some swear by the adventure of the windmills that your worship took to be Briareuses and giants; others by that of the fulling mills; one cries up the description of the two armies that afterwards took the appearance of two droves of sheep; another that of the dead body on its way to be buried at Segovia…” says Samson.
Now, there’s the story of Don Quixote within the second part of Don Quixote, which was already framed inside Benengeli’s history told by Character-Cervantes. To top it all off, in Chapter LIX, Don Quixote and Sancho encounter some characters who are reading the false Quixote. Cervantes takes the opportunity to tear the novel apart. That adds another layer to the structure, making it two stories within a story within a story.
Cervantes didn’t use the stories-within-a-story-within-a-story structure for the hell of it. This structure (to say very little about the content itself) accomplishes several goals:
1. It creates at least three layers for Author-Cervantes to work with in commenting on and criticizing knight adventure novels, the people who read them, Spanish society and other authors who criticized him.
2. It creates a dialogue between fiction and reality. Character-Cervantes tells us that Benengeli wrote a true history, but he also tells us that all Arabs are liars. Since Benengeli is Arab, he must be a liar, so how could he write a true story?
Samson then brings up a point about the difference between historians and storytellers: “The poet may describe or sing things, not as they were, but as they ought to have been; but the historian has to write them down, not as they ought to have been, but as they were, without adding anything to the truth or taking anything from it” (Part II, Chapter III).
There’s a poet (Cervantes) writing the book that is supposed to be the history of a knight-errant recorded by a lying Arab historian (Benengeli), which creates even more truth-fiction tension. Cervantes, as the poet, should be the liar, but instead it’s the historian. Who’s a poor reader to trust?!
3. It gives Cervantes a clever—and reasonable within the framework of the book—way to correct some of the errors he made in the first part of the novel that Avellaneda pointed out in the false Quixote and address the criticisms Avellaneda made. Cervantes was not always so great about keeping his details straight, but of course, for each knight adventure story there were ten novels with ten different endings, so it’s possible this was a conscious choice that wound up looking sloppy.
Considering how much I’ve learned about writing and building stories from this one book, I’m happy to forgive Cervantes for slipping up on a few details.
A version of this post appeared first on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, in December 2009.