Seizing Cervantes

When it all began, that is, when the Skeptic Party rose to power in the United Kingdom, in 2070, I was completely in favor. The group’s plan to completely forbid religious practice pleased me greatly. I was brought up in an intellectual environment, the son of a family that never believed in any god and always associated the religious figure with some guy with a double-digit IQ or a fanatical human bomb. I admit, I voted for the Skeptic Party as soon as it came into existence. But I’m a guardian of culture—that’s what I hold teachers to be—and if the plans I found out about are real, something needs to be done.

The beginning of the story isn’t based in fact but stems from a couple of wisecracks made at a dinner party at my house. Joseph remarked that the Skeptic Party (which had now been in power fifteen years) had plans to alter Miguel de Cervantes’s  Don Quixote. The extreme skeptics would sabotage Alonso Quixano’s library before the old man decided to become the knight Don Quixote, replacing the fantasy books about honorable adventurers, damsels in distress, and evil sorcerers with  . . . scientific treatises. These would be the books that would obsess Quixano; these works full of numbers and mathematical proofs would mediate between the world of books and reality.

In this new version of Cervantes’s novel, then, things would be inverted. Thus, Sancho Panza, who had always been seen by critics as representing “reason and clearheadedness,” would be the one to convince Alonso Quixano to set off on adventures. In the memorable windmill scene, Sancho would say: “Look over there, Don Quixote, they’re giants!” only to receive a tsk-tsk in response: “They’re no such thing, Sancho, they’re just windmills. If you want, I can trace the trajectory of each blade, calculate the equation of their motion. Would you like me to? And my name isn’t Quixote, it’s Alonso Quixano.” Poor Sancho, yearning for adventures, frustrated like a woman with an impotent husband. According to the friend who cracked the joke, the government’s goal in making this substitution would be to trim Cervantes’s nine-hundred-page novel, making it far more palatable to high-school students, forced from the age of five by their parents to take medicine to treat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders.

Up to that point, fine, a tasteless story at a dinner party. Badmouthing the government is as common as breathing, it doesn’t matter which party is in power. And that’s that.

One day, however, chance led me to enter a café and sit at the same table where a government agent had been seated just before. The man had forgotten his briefcase and I couldn’t resist, I had to take a peek. Rather than carrying electronic reading and Internet devices, the overstuffed briefcase held a five-hundred-page folio volume. How strange to find sheets of paper. The government continued to use this medium because paper had become much more secure than digitized text. It wasn’t exposed on the Web, so if there were some emergency, some breach of confidentiality, copies were simply burned. Printed texts are infinitely more difficult to share.

I glanced around to see if anyone was watching me. The café was nearly empty. I began to leaf through the pages, feigning utter disinterest, when suddenly I came across plans for what was called “progressive literary alteration.” To my astonishment, there was a subchapter titled “Don Quixote,” which might very well have been called “Seizing Cervantes.” The plan involved gradually rewriting the novel (all of the available editions were virtual) over the years, so that no one would notice and collective memories would forget the details. Implausible? That’s what I thought, at first, but then I remembered how rare it was to find paper editions in the UK and how the number of specialists in literature was radically diminishing over time. Furthermore, our anti-immigration policies had reduced the number of Spanish speakers within our borders.

The proposal for rewriting was in itself interesting (and creative). In version 2.0 of the work, there was no longer discussion as to whether Quixote was a madman, in love, a visionary, or a utopian. He was merely myopic. Yes. The ingenious nobleman saw giants instead of windmills, and soldiers in place of sheep, not out of madness, but because he suffered from poor vision. That’s right, Quixote was nearsighted. I had to  read it twice, it was so hard to believe. The arguments (which were to be inserted into the work) were strong. Think of his age: he was ancient by the day’s standards. Moreover, he had read excessively throughout his life, wearing out his eyes. Glasses weren’t common objects in the early seventeenth century either, and we know (from illustrations) that Quixote didn’t use them. Maybe that’s why, on approaching the supposed giants, he finally realized that they were just windmills, since myopia only affects distance vision.

I closed the briefcase and shuddered. I preferred not knowing how the scene continued, whether Sancho would offer the failed knight spectacles.

I asked for another espresso and then immediately canceled the order. More coffee would only make me more agitated. Waiter, a double whisky, please.

I reopened the briefcase. I moved out of the section on “progressive literary alterations” and read the subtitle “Experiment #34.”

It didn’t have anything directly to do with Cervantes or Quixote but also dealt with blindness, with another form of myopia: critical blindness. It was the report on the first (failed) experiment to develop software for literary criticism.

In the LitCrit program, the user would open a full-length book, press the “comprehend” key, select a trend—“Marxist,” “structuralist,” “poststructuralist,” among fifteen others—and wait five minutes.

There were reports of results for assorted book analyses. The first I looked at—since there was no way to get the subject out of my head—was Don Quixote. And curiously, one of the results was similar to the proposal for rewriting. Did that mean the myopia theory might be a valid literary interpretation? Maybe the plan had come about as a result of this idea from the virtual critic. There’s no way to know which came first, and to be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The case that led the programmers to give up on the software (subtitle: “Failure”) was James Joyce’s  Ulysses (1922). Whenever the user loaded this book into LitCrit, the program understood modernism’s masterpiece as science fiction. The proof of this, the software suggested, was in the last chapter. The novel’s eighteenth chapter was famous for the change in narrator, as Joyce gives voice to Molly Bloom, who offers us that desperate monologue, considered obscene at the time, without periods or commas. This excerpt was proof, the computer program argued, that Ulysses did not tell about a Jew wandering around Dublin, reconstructing Homer’s odyssey, but was actually a novel about a deadly virus known as metempsychosis that affected people’s consciousness, wiping out their forms of communication, preventing them from using commas or periods or putting together a coherent thought. Ulysses should therefore be considered one of the most creative works of twentieth-century science fiction, along with Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

In July 2068, the LitCrit project was abandoned. In September 2076, South Koreans began to work on LitCrit2. The report ends asserting that LitCrit2’s chances for success are estimated at 98%.

That’s when I decided to close the briefcase for good and order another whisky. I thought, “What a fine future awaits us.” I laughed aloud and shuddered once more. The whisky arrived and I toasted into the air, alone, remembering a friend who, before each toast, always exclaims: “What a time to be alive!” If what I found in the agent’s briefcase was serious—and why wouldn’t it be, except for the fact that it’s completely preposterous?—someone needs to do something. With each sip of my drink, I was comforted by the growing certainty that I wasn’t the right person to do anything. The most I can do is tell the story, spread it around. The story of the end. I looked out at the street. A strong wind that seemed to speed up time began to blow.  I could see the future arriving faster and faster.  

“Sequestrando Cervantes” ©Antônio Xerxenesky. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Kim M. Hastings. All rights reserved.