Wednesday, 23 April 2014

UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day - Maeve Friel

Happy Book Day! No, I haven´t got my dates mixed up. 23rd April,  is the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day, a worldwide celebration of the book, the publishing industry and the intellectual property rights of the author. (Britain and Ireland as always are out of step with the rest of the world!)

The date was chosen by UNESCO because both Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) and William Shakespeare died on that day (although that is not strictly true because of the difference in the Gregorian and Julian Calendars).

In Spain, Cervantes Day has been celebrated since 1923 and Cervantes is treated with the same veneration and respect as Shakespeare.  In Cataluña, the day coincides with the feastday of their national saint, St. George or Sant Jordi, and there is a longstanding tradition there of people exchanging roses and books on 23rd April although this custom is widespread throughout Spain now. Many bookshops present you with a rose when you buy a book and nearly all stay open late. There are thousands of book related activities throughout the country.

If you were in Madrid today, you could celebrate the life of Cervantes by going to the Convento de las Trinitarias, an old convent in the Barrio de las Letras (The Arts Quarter), where the Academy hold a memorial Mass with an empty coffin on display. Cervantes chose to be buried here because the Trinitarian Monks had helped organise his release after he was kidnapped and enslaved by Algerian corsairs on his return from the Battle of Lepanto (where he lost an arm): unfortunately, the location of the grave has long been lost.

Or you could take the train out to the old university town of Alcalá de Henares where Cervantes was born, the son of a barber-surgeon and a minor impoverished aristocrat.  His home is now a casa-museo and is a fascinating glimpse into 16th century domestic architecture.

Or you could go farther afield to Argamasilla in Castilla La Mancha. This small town claims to be the home of Don Quixote, "the place whose name I do not wish to remember"  - (el) lugar de La Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme. It is now firmly on the literary tourist map, on the Ruta de Don Quijote, a fabulous landscape with its wide horizons, crumbling castles and dozens of white windmills on the crests of the hills.

Cervantes, always poor, always unfortunate in business and in love, was thrown into prison in Argamasilla.  It was here that he said he had the idea for Don Quijote, who may have been based on the local Duke Rodrigo de Pacheco, the duke of the long countenance, who suffered from mental illness. His ex voto portrait hangs in the local church (he´s the man in the ruff, bottom right hand corner):

Or you could simply take down a copy of Don Quixote, the Ingenious Hidalgo of La Mancha and browse. Often cited as the first modern European novel, and nominated again and again by writers as their favourite book, it is funny, touching, wise and full of beautiful language - and yes, there are boring bits too but you can skip them. There are literally hundreds of editions, including ones illustrated by Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso.  In the whole literary canon, are there any profiles as recognisable as the long skinny lance-wielding hidalgo and his small round companion Sancho Panza?

Can I also recommend Don Quixote´s Delusions - Travels in Castilian Spain by Miranda France, an unusual travel book/memoir/literary biography. It will make you laugh out loud but is also a scholarly and insightful introduction to Don Quijote.

I have not been above borrowing a little from Cervantes. My books Tiger Lily - A Heroine in the Making, Tiger Lily - A Heroine with a Mission, Tiger Lily - A Heroine for All Seasons all feature a girl who, like Don Quijote, has also become a little mad from reading so many books and determines to become a heroine and escape from her home in the Middle of Nowhere in search of adventure.

"When Don Quijote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel." Milan Kundera

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

I had no idea Cervantes had such a dramatically unfortunate life! thanks, Maeve!