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The search for Miguel de Cervantes is never done
Guardian, 15 April 2000

Spring afternoons pass slowly in Argamasilla de Alba. Lying on a bench in the public gardens next to the river, I stare up through the branches of the limes at the warm sky. Is this where it all began, some time between 1601 and 1603? Or is it another place where the Spanish have felt free to indulge their fantasies?

Recent experience says that though these towns and villages dotted across the Manchego plain are perfectly real, quiet and slumberous places – some described in detail by the writer who gave them a world significance – the stories told in them are fundamentally unreliable.

A few minutes after 5pm, I’m standing in a cool underground room down a flight of steps from the courtyard of the 15th-century casa Medrano. Ten metres long and no more than three wide, it has a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a tiny barred window at pavement level for light. At one end, there is a straw couch and an old wooden table and chair. Miguel de Cervantes is said to have been imprisoned here. My guide explains that the house was Medrano’s, mayor of Argamasilla at the time of Cervantes’ detention, who would have been responsible for arresting him.

There are two versions of the episode: that he was gaoled because he made a pass at the sister/niece/mistress of the marquis Don Rodrigo de Pacheco, who lived in the town, or that he was collecting taxes for the military Order of St John without authority. Either way, he was held for several months, and it’s believed that he began writing Don Quixote while imprisoned – that here, in this room, he began to tell the story that is to the modern novel what Freud is to psychology. (Freud, incidentally, was one of Don Quixote’s greatest admirers, valuing its permanent lesson for the reader of always needing to work out whether what we are seeing and imagining is true or false.)

It feels right that Cervantes, banged up by a tax-evading landowner on the pretext of immoral behaviour, would have wanted to get his own back by satirising Don Rodrigo (who had a reputation for eccentricity) as the mad knight. To support the theory, there’s a painting of the marquis in the parish church with an inscription that contains, in analogy, the words Cervantes wrote to explain the illness that caused Quixote’s madness: “He slept so little and read so much that his brain dried up and he lost his reason.”

I decide that I believe the Argamasilla story. Stories are a matter of confidence: the guide tells this one carefully and well. I trust her.

I’m not sure I can say the same about the official responsible for tourism in Alcalá de Henares, 100 miles to the north, where I’d visited a few days before. Alcalá lays claim to being the starting point of any Cervantes quest. The writer was born here, they say, in 1547, and they have a baptismal font, a reconstructed house in the Jewish barrio and a birth certificate to prove it. Now a world heritage site, Alcalá is a finely-restored medieval town of towers and tame storks, with an awareness of the revenue to be had from tourism. It has an important place in Castilian culture. Its greatest glory is its university, established in 1499 by Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo.

After a tour of the Cervantine sites – including an impressive collection of first editions in the new museum to be opened later this year – I was invited to meet the councillor for tourism. I asked to see Cervantes’ birth certificate. It was in a safe, I was told. There was a copy in a deep, unlit display case on the wall. But it was impossible to see precisely what was written on the paper.

It would be right for Cervantes to have been born and educated here: Quevedo, Lope de Vega and Ignatius Loyola all passed through the university’s doors. It wasn’t until later, in another town, that I happened to hear another story that awakened doubts about Alcalá’s Cervantes industry.

Alcázar de San Juan, small and opiate, lies east of the Toledan hills in the middle of the Mancha plain. There is a plaque in a sunny square: “In a house on this site Miguel de Cervantes was born.” I had seen other Cervantes-related plaques; this wasn’t the first to claim kinship with the king. But when we reached the Romanesque church of Santa María la Mayor, things took an interesting turn. There was an entry in the baptismal records: “On the 9th day of November 1558 baptised, a son of Blas de Cervantes Saavedra and Catalina Lopez, who is named Miguel.”

The date would have made Cervantes 11 when he was baptised (if in fact he was born in 1547), but late baptisms weren’t uncommon at the time. Annotated in the margin were the words of a secretary of Philip III who had visited Alcázar – “the author of Don Quixote”. What did Father Vicente think of the document in Alcalá? “It’s a forgery,” he replied decisively.

For the pilgrim, you pursue what you hope will be the truth, and then, at a certain point, you realise that the quest is Don Quixote all over again, the modern version of knight errantry, a wild windmill chase.

The windmills. Look at them in the distance at Campo de Criptana as you approach across the haze of the plain, 16 of them, and you just have to admit the truth of Quixote’s vision. From several miles away these are giants, with their gleaming white bodies, their sails outstretched offensively, ranged in battle formation – and there were even more, 40 or so, in Cervantes’ time.

And these were the actual windmills mentioned in the book, so my guide says – unless it was the ones near Consuegra, 30 miles away, or the ones at . . . and so forth. It doesn’t matter. This is the vision the valorous knight saw.

Spend any time in La Mancha and you’ll realise there isn’t one, but many of them: the agricultural ground beneath your feet, hundreds of miles of scorched wheatfields and tough vineyards, still peasant-owned; the historical palaces and castles, the straight roads still murmuring the stories of trader and Moor, soldier and Christian, Jew and king and mystic; the gastronomic home of baked game and cheese “harder than plaster of Paris”; not to mention the mythic landscape of a tormented madman and his loyal fat squire who have held our imagination for 400 years.

The guide at Campo de Criptana said – I’m not sure I believe this one, but it’s a good story – that a Japanese tourist once asked him which was the exact windmill Quixote had tilted at. When told that Cervantes’ account was only a story, he turned on his heel and broke the dreadful news to his fellow countrymen. They got back on the bus then and there, crushed by the loss of their illusions.

Maybe their belief in Cervantes’ characters would have been more kindly treated in El Toboso, a village of silent, charming corners that rings periodically with the burble of sheep bells or the Angelus. Tucked behind the parish church of San Antonio Abad is the “house of Dulcinea”, a farmhouse restored and furnished as it would have been in the 16th century. On the first floor, entering the bedroom of a woman who did not exist, with its handsome gothic bedstead, even I felt a burst of sympathy for the gallant, unrequited knight.

Reaching Almagro that night, I stayed in the parador of the former convent of Santa Catalina. Almagro is a nodal point in Spanish history: white and aristocratic, it reverberates with elderly grace and the echoes of lost power. An extraordinary calm overcame me after dinner as I sat reading a novel.

The choice of book was apt: it was Eduardo Mendoza’s The Year of the Flood, one of the best novels to come out of Spain in the post-Franco era. In his story of Sister Consuelo, seduced by a philandering landowner as she campaigns to raise funds for a hospital for the poor, there is a deep vein of Don Quixote’s moral idealism. The altruism that gets him into deep trouble does likewise for Sister Consuelo – but at the end of a long life of charity, what she takes with her on her deathbed isn’t the satisfaction of the hospitals she has built, but the memory of her one small sin and the joy that she was loved.

As the director of Madrid’s Cervantes Institute, Francisco Marcos Marín, had said to me a few days before, when we had spent a morning talking about how spectacularly Cervantes’ influence had flown around the world and never waned: “Illusion and reality, you see. They are two sides of the same coin.”

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