In 2006, I began research in earnest on my master’s thesis on “Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka.” That’s when I first came across the question of Cervantes’s alleged Jewish ancestry. To my mind, if Cervantes had known that he was from a converso bloodline, it would answer deep mysteries about his talking dogs. But I couldn’t fit the debate into the paper. It would have been a huge digression, and so I set the topic aside for later.

In 2012, I finished my Harvard Extension degree and took a break from Cervantes and company. I took up a brand new challenge, learning how to draw. Best of all, I got engaged later that year and married the next.

Once things settled down after the wedding, I began to pursue an idea that had taken hold: Revisiting each of my five thesis authors, using non-academic writing to convey a sense of what I like most about these authors and their themes and styles. Oh, and talking dogs.

To kick it off, from December 2013 to March 2014, I read Don Quixote in its entirety, accompanied by a series of online course videos taught by Roberto González Echevarría, Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale.

That sparked a larger project: To watch the entire, 40-course library of Open Yale Courses (7 down, 33 to go). You see, I had wanted to go to Yale as an undergrad, and if they’re going to offer the equivalent of a general studies degree for free online, why not take advantage? I resolved to do the readings, permitting myself to skip the final exams and essays as long as I did something with the courses, some kind of self-directed final project for each. Or better yet, interdisciplinary projects combining what I’ve learned from multiple courses.

That’s how I ended up reading Don Quixote alongside of the Hebrew Bible with Yale’s “Introduction to the Old Testament” course.

I considered several project ideas: An illustrated version of “Dialogue of the Dogs.” Don Quixote told in Biblical style using additional layers of secondary sources and witnesses. Rabbi Quixote, a reinvention of Don Quixote as a shtetl-hopper. Samurai Quixote, in which a copy of the book makes its way to 17th-century Japan and inspires Quixote’s Japanese counterpart. A book claiming that the entire novel was narrated by El galgo, Don Quixote’s greyhound. Yet I kept returning to the converso controversy.

In January 2, 2014, about halfway through reading Part I of Don Quixote, I wrote in my journal:

“With the anniversary of Cervantes’s death in April 2016, I have just enough time to write a book about the controversy. Illustrated, even.”

A few hours later, following a hunch:

“It turns out that the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death coincides with Passover 2016. Rabbi Quijote is now very interesting.”

With that, I reopened my converso notes.

The converso controversy

In his casebook [1] for the course, Echevarría gives airtime to the Jewish question in order to dismiss it:

“I am not convinced by the hypothesis, timidly advanced by [Manuel] Durán, that his teacher Americo Castro and other students of his proposed on very flimsy evidence, of a converso Cervantes – one, that is, whose purportedly Jewish background would have made him marginal.

“Castro’s theories are, to my mind, too dependent on the racial hatreds and atrocities of the twentieth century to be applicable with little proof to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (13).

And here’s Durán’s timid hypothesis:

“A critical, ironic bent, plus an affinity for the ideas of Erasmus seem to point in the direction of a converso ancestry. The documentary proofs are lacking. Yet some of the best modern Hispanists, Americo Castro and Stephen Gilman among them, lean towards the idea that Cervantes came from a converso family” (32).

Agreed, that was a timid hypothesis.

Ellen Lokos, in “The Politics of Identity and the Enigma of Cervantine Genealogy,” outlines the history of the argument, which went as follows (with language simplified and decades compressed):

“It’s possible Cervantes was a converso.”

“No way.”

“Sure, it’s possible, and here’s some evidence.”

“Forget about it, he’s a true Spaniard.”

“Who was probably Jewish.”

 “Why are you interested in this tired question?”

“Because we have evidence that points to it being true.”

“Perhaps possible but you can’t prove it, and anyway, it’s irrelevant.”

And so on.

For an example of the kind of evidence we’re talking about, consider the Sigura affair:

In 1569, the 22-year-old Cervantes (or someone with his name) wounded Antonio de Sigura in a duel, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. It was a good idea for him to leave town. He goes to Rome later that year and enters the service of a certain Msgr. Acquaviva.

Cervantes appeared in Rome with papers signed by witnesses that say: Miguel? Oh yes, he’s a solid citizen and an Old Christian as far as anyone here knows. A licenciado was present merely to confirm the witnesses’ statement: I hereby affirm that the witnesses spoke thusly. But there was no judge, no prosecuting attorney, no cross-examination.

Lokos writes: “The document they produced had no parallels in the period” (118). That supports the converso theory because if he had been able to come up with stronger documentary evidence of his lineage, he would have done so.

Except for one thing: If there’s an outstanding warrant for your arrest, you’d avoid judges and prosecutors.

And so we’re back to the murk of supposition. Why didn’t he get a better official posting, despite his record as a war hero after the Battle of Lepanto in 1871? Why didn’t the officials allow him to sail to the New World? If he was truly of pure lineage, why didn’t he document it at any point? Why did his father work at the traditional Jewish profession of medico? Why did he marry a woman from a town with a large Jewish population? Why did his sisters, and his own daughter, have to resort to being consorts to wealthy aristocrats? Who knows?

Proof gets even murkier with the textual arguments. The most ardent proponents of the converso theory discover hidden meanings in the novels, and if there’s one thing we can say about textual readings, they’re open to interpretation. I can make those arguments all day, but what’s the point?

Neither documentary nor textual arguments would settle this question. I wanted Echevarría to be wrong, but I began to accept the verdict as “unproven.”

Cervantes’s Bones

Throughout most of 2014, I made various attempts to get my Cervantes outline together. Fragments, false starts. I made progress on a detailed analysis on the “El Galgo” hypothesis, but even that topic found its way back to the impasse of the converso controversy.

When you’re stuck, hit the road.

In January 2015, I went to Vancouver for the annual conference of the Modern Language Association. I attended several sessions, and those baffled me even more. I’m not part of that world, I don’t publish in academic journals and my intended career exists far from academia. And so I sat in session after session, drawing pictures of the speakers.

And then, in the hallway: The unmistakable presence of Roberto González Echevarría.

I introduced myself as having taken his Don Quixote class. He didn’t recognize me because free online videos don’t yet watch you back. Once we established that I was a complete stranger, he was very gracious and told me about his forthcoming book based on the lectures. And then I told him about my theory that the narrator of Don Quixote was actually a galgo, at which point he politely excused himself.

That evening, I invited myself to a party thrown by a big publishing house and pitched the crap out of El Galgo to an editor who worked in a completely unrelated field. I told him I’d send him my manuscript when it was ready, that it would be perfectly timed for the 400th anniversary, maybe he could forward it, and well, that never quite happened.

In March 2015, researchers announced that they found what they believed to be the bones of Cervantes in a shared grave in a Madrid convent. For a while, I thought DNA would change everything.

Maybe it could, but to show a lineage investigators would have to identify DNA samples not just from Cervantes’s bones, but also from his descendants and ancestors. We have none of that. We don’t have the bones of people thought to be ancestors, nor do we have any idea whether any of his direct descendants made it to the modern age or the present. In the end, the researchers weren’t even able to ascertain which bones in the mass grave belonged to Cervantes, and so the bones were reburied along with the mystery.

It’s better as a mystery. I enjoy the existence of the unprovable proposition, and this year’s Calendrical Coincidence makes it even more interesting.

It’s been a long time coming, and it’s not exactly the desk-thumper that I thought it would be, but in any event it gives me great pleasure to present my final project for the Open Yale Courses “Don Quixote” course, also serving as partial fulfillment for the self-imposed requirements for the “Introduction to the Old Testament” and “Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior” courses.

Please enjoy.

The Sedervantes: Next Year in La Mancha

 

[1] Roberto González Echevarría, ed. Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] Ellen Lokos, “The Politics of Identity and the Enigma of Cervantine Genealogy” in Cervantes and His Postmodern Constituencies, edited by Anne J. Cruz, Carroll B. Johnson (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999).

 

 

 

 

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