Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 2)

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: books in translation are a unique kind of magic. Sayaka Murata has won multiple literary prizes in Japan, she was named one of Vogue Japan’s Women Of The Year in 2016, and yet Convenience Store Woman is the first of her ten (ten!) novels to be translated into English. It was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator), and it has gone on to make Murata a literary superstar in the Anglophone world, as she has long deserved to be.

The blurb begins: “Keiko isn’t normal,”. A strong start, wouldn’t you say? Keiko has known since childhood that she was “different” from everybody else, but she learned early on that expressing herself in ways that feel natural to her does not go down well in her conservative and conformist culture – it freaks people out and causes problems. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, peers recoil from her and her family worries that she’ll never “fit in”. Everyone’s relieved when, aged 18, she takes a “normal” job in a convenience store (a konbini) – including Keiko. The store provides an employee manual that provides her with strict protocols for interaction that she finds deeply comforting. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” she says, on page 21. Thus, she becomes the titular Convenience Store Woman.

Eighteen years later, however, the gig is starting to wear thin. Not for Keiko, but for the people around her. Keiko has happily adopted “convenience store worker” as her whole identity, and struggles to understand why that’s not enough. Her friends and family worry about her, and they’re not backwards in coming forwards: as far as they’re concerned, stacking shelves and greeting customers in a 24/7 convenience store is no way for a woman of advancing (reproductive) years to live, and the pressure to find a new job (or a husband) intensifies…

Enter Shiraha: a ragamuffin, layabout, ne’er do well who takes a job at the convenience store for the express purpose of “marriage shopping”. Basically, he’s an in-cel, looking for someone to give him social credibility and (ideally) finance his ridiculous idea for a start-up. He’s fired almost immediately, of course, because he’s the absolute worst – but not before Keiko identifies him as a potential solution. In her world, any explanation for her supposed aberration is better than no explanation at all. So, she takes Shiraha in, and presents him to the world as her live-in partner. There! They both “fit in” now! Happily ever after, right?





Of course not! Stick two misfits like Keiko and Shiraha in a tiny apartment together, on Keiko’s meagre convenience store worker salary no less, and everything will inevitably go to shit. Keiko has mild psychopathic tendencies, resorts to mimicking her co-workers’ speech and dress to “fit in”, and remains blithely indifferent to sex, romance, or anything like it. Shiraha feels entitled to anything and everything he wants, and views their whole arrangement as a huge favour that he is doing for Keiko out of the goodness of his heart. Really, the only thing they have in common is that they both long to flip the bird to the homogenising pressures of Japanese culture.

Let’s be clear here, though: Convenience Store Woman isn’t some kind of odd-couple rom-com, it’s no contemporary take on Pride And Prejudice. In fact, it’s very satirical, almost dystopian, in tone – wry, matter of fact, and mournful, all at once. It’s a class commentary, in the sense that it looks at social problems caused by class and gender inequity in Japan. Keiko lives in a “grim post-capitalist reverie”, where she finds purpose, acceptance, and contentment in the fluorescent, synthetic environment of the convenience store. Into the bargain, she’s a woman, which gives Murata ample fodder to question whether women can truly be happy in their “traditional” roles, that age-old question of feminism.





And yet, Convenience Store Woman is SHORT. Like, seriously SHORT. 163 pages! SHORT! The story moves very fast, which is part of its appeal, but it was almost (only almost) too fast for me. I would’ve loved to spend more time in Keiko’s mind and her world, but I’ve got to respect the mastery. How Murata managed to cram so much into so few pages is beyond me! On par with the economical prose of Arthur Conan Doyle, in my opinion…

I can’t resist a spoiler (but I left it ’til the very last paragraph, so don’t complain): in the end, Keiko rejects the more “convenient” life that Shiraha offers her, and returns to the convenience store. Obviously, that’s a broader statement about rejecting conformism in the pursuit of happiness (real or synthetic), and it’s very cleverly done – in fact, it didn’t strike me until later that that’s what Murata was getting at. Convenience Store Woman is such an intriguingly strange book, one that feels uniquely singular but simultaneously universal. I absolutely recommend it!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Convenience Store Woman:

  • “Cute story, not to norm” – Tanya settle
  • “anybody who didn’t understand this book hasen’t subsumed themselves into the rhythms of a low-level retail job. I loved this book.” – pencillers
  • “What seems would be a dull story about an ordinary woman with a mundane job is a fascinating novel.” – eva b.
  • “A very enjoyable story told from the perspective of a non-violent sociopath. It’s unlike any story I’ve read and quite fun at that.” – JF
  • “This book felt like something Dostoyevsky would have written if he were a woman and had a sense of humor….” – Travis Ann Sherman

9 Brilliant Books In Translation

As a monolingual reader, I am SO grateful for access to books in translation. Earlier this week, I read and reviewed A Man Called Ove by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman. That would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the translator Henning Koch, who took the original Swedish (En man som heter Ove) and transformed it into a story I could understand. I’ve talked before about the world-changing magic of books in translation, and today I thought I’d expand on that by giving you a round-up of some of my favourite translated book recommendations. Here’s a list of brilliant books in translation…

9 Brilliant Books In Translation - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Sign in Multiple Languages - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Rod Bradbury

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is one of the most delightful books I have ever read, my ultimate cheer-up read. It was first published in the original Swedish in 2009, translated into English a short time later – and it’s since gone on to sell over three million copies worldwide. In some ways, it does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of a centenarian who, hoping to avoid the dreary birthday party his nursing home has planned for him, escapes out the window and goes on a wild adventure. It’s like a European Forrest Gump, but less cheesy and infinitely more hilarious! Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Ann Goldstein

I’m always worried when reviewing and recommending My Brilliant Friend that I cannot possibly do this beautiful, breathtaking book justice. Seriously, I cannot understate just how brilliant (ha!) it is! It was first published in 2012, the first in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan Novels, and it follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two young girls growing up in the cruel and sometimes violent community of mid-20th century Naples. Ferrante’s true identity is, of course, a mystery (she writes under a pseudonym), and one that gets a lot of attention – but I think we should expend that energy praising her translator, Ann Goldstein, instead. The way that she has managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian in this English edition is just… brilliant! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

This slim little book contains the bizarre but endearing story of a Japanese woman who struggles with social convention, and finds comfort in the rhythm and routine of her “career” working in a local convenience store, where every relationship is transactional. Convenience Store Woman is actually the tenth book by Sayaka Murata (she’s a big-big-big literary star in Japan, named Woman Of The Year by Japanese Vogue in 2016!) but this is the first to be translated into English. Her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, has also previously translated two short stories of Murata’s, and is working on the forthcoming Earthlings, slated for release later this year.


No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Omid Tofighian

No Friend But The Mountains is different from the other books in translation listed here, in a few key ways. The work of translation was done as the book was being drafted (rather than from a completed manuscript). This is because, at the time of writing, Behrouz Boochani was detained on Manus Island by the Australian Government. He and Omid Tofighian wrote the entire thing in concert (translating from Farsi to English), by exchange of WhatsApp messages, to tell the truth of what was happening to Behrouz in the Manus Prison. The book went on to win the Victorian Premier’s Prize in 2019, and has already been deemed an essential work of Australian literature (like it or not, this is a horrifying-but-true Australian story). Thankfully, Behrouz has since been released from Manus, and is currently in New Zealand.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

The Eighth Life - Nino Haratschvili - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are definitely not over! The proof is in The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili. The fine folks at Scribe Publishing were kind enough to send me a copy for review last year, published for the first time in English (written originally in German, though Haratischvili has been writing in both German and Georgian since she was twelve years old). Don’t be intimidated by its size, and the scope of its story (several generations over a crucial period in world history). The Eighth Life will sweep you away. It falls smack bang in the middle of the Venn diagram between Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel Marcia Marquez, and Elena Ferrante.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

A Horse Walks Into A Bar - David Grossman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Jessica Cohen

A Horse Walks Into A Bar takes a lot of risks… but, I suppose, one must go big or go home. Of all the work that goes into translation, surely the hardest has to be to translate comedy: even the title, a trope of stand up comedy, surely wouldn’t translate easily into every language and culture. Still, Jessica Cohen pulls it off! And it’s just just the lols, it’s also the deep and despairing moments, the unraveling of the protagonist in its short timeline (just two hours), that are done spectacularly well. Grossman wrote this book in Hebrew, and the English-language translation went on to win the Booker International Prize in 2017.


The Odyssey by Homer

Translated by Emily Wilson

Another magical thing about books in translation: if they hang around long enough, and remain popular enough, other people start to have a go and you end up with multiple translations that bring all kinds of new wonders to light. Believe it or not, even though Homer’s The Odyssey has been translated into English many dozens of times since it was first written in Ancient Greece, Emily Wilson’s translation is the first to be completed and published by a woman. Wilson is a Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and looks at this bedrock work of poetry through a contemporary feminist lens. The canon has too long belonged to men, and works like Wilson’s are crucial in diversifying and expanding our perspectives.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by ???

It only seems fair that, in this list of brilliant books in translation, I include an example that is both a shining star and a massive #NameTheTranslator fail. I love this edition of Madame Bovary, which was the highly influential debut of French novelist Gustave Flaubert and caused a huge stir upon release. I read it and loved it, the searing insight into the patriarchal constructions of femininity and madness… and yet, when I looked for the name of the person who had worked so hard to bring this brilliant book into my native tongue, I couldn’t see it anywhere. Not on the cover, not in the prefatory materials, not even on the publisher’s website. There is just one, unattributed, note in the beginning that says: “The translator would like to record his gratitude to his wife, Teresa Russell, who read the translation in manuscript and made many valuable suggestions”. I mean, hats off for giving your wife credit, mate, but surely you deserve some too! So, this one goes out to the anonymous translator of Madame Bovary, and to all other uncredited and unacknowledged translators everywhere, who toil in silence on our behalf.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by David McDuff

So, as we’ve established, every version of a book in translation is different: in some ways, the translator re-writes a new book each time. That’s why, when I highly recommend people read Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (which I do, by the way), I hasten to add that they should secure this edition, translated into English by David McDuff, for their first time. See, I just can’t be sure that other translations – wonderful as they might be – will capture the same humour, pathos, and beguiling nature of this story about a literal axe murderer. I came to Crime And Punishment, knowing it to be a Russian classic, assuming it would be dull, dense, and depressing – and I can assure you that David McDuff’s version is none of those things. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.



What are your favourite books in translation? Add to the list in the comments below – I’m always on the hunt for more!

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I love a good sleeper hit. You know those books that have been out for a while without a fuss, then they start gathering steam, and all of a sudden they’re everywhere you look? That’s what happened with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Once upon a time, Backman was a quiet little Swedish blogger, and A Man Called Ove (or, in the original Swedish, En man som heter Ove) was his debut novel. It was published in 2012, translated into English in 2013, but didn’t reach the New York Times Bestseller List until eighteen months later. Once it got there, it stayed there for 42 weeks. And, here’s some more fun trivia: it’s an even bigger, even more-unexpectedly huge best seller in South Korea (not even his publisher quite understands why). Sometimes, miracles happen, eh?

This English language edition – which has sold over three million copies around the world, by the way – was translated by Henning Koch. Remember: always #NameTheTranslator!

It begins with an especially-curmudgeonly old-before-his-time 59-year-old man, called Ove (in case you missed it). He’s been having a rough trot. He’s still mourning the loss of his wife, and recently found himself forced into early retirement. Lacking any purpose or intention for the rest of his life, he plans to die by suicide. As fate would have it, on the day of his planned departure from this mortal coil, an exuberant young family moves in next door.

Ove has always lived by a set of pragmatic principles and strict routines. When the newcomers knock over his mailbox trying to back in their trailer, he just about blows a gasket. Parvaneh is a pregnant mother of two, and Patrick is her partner who really struggles with parking. Ove finds them bothersome and tiresome and just about every other -some adjective you can imagine a grumpy old man throwing at a couple of kids just trying to find their way in the world. When they mess up his plans to die, he stubbornly refuses to accept the divine intervention, and makes a new plan… until it happens again. And again.





Look, I know this doesn’t sound like the stuff of great comic novels. A lonely old guy trying to off himself? Complete with wacky neighbours and hijinks? Indeed, Backman had trouble finding a publisher at first. Based on his pitch, they said the book had “no commercial potential”, and that Ove was too unlikeable, too much of a Debbie Downer. Reader, they were very, very wrong. I was howling with laughter from page one. I was sending snaps of the funniest bits to my friends by page twelve. And then, about half way through, my eyes got a bit wet. And then it happened again, a little further on. By the end of A Man Called Ove, I’d used up half a box of tissues, and my cheeks, my chin, and my shirt front were all wet, too. Backman is uniquely skilled at the art of getting the reader to care more than they thought they would. He’s managed to make the old man’s cynicism and indignation endearing. Ove, stick-in-the-mud as he may be, feels disconnected and lost – who can’t relate to that? And he finds, in his new neighbours, new purpose (mostly to tell them how they’re doing it all wrong) – who can’t relate to that, too?

As Ove’s relationship with his new neighbours develops, so unfolds his backstory, one so heart-wrenching and wonderful and evocative that it sings in perfect harmony with the rest of the novel. I never once felt like I was being pulled back and forth in the timeline, or emotionally manipulated, because Backman knew just how hard to push, and when to back away. What I loved most of all was that it was brimming with my favourite type of whimsical, misanthropic humour, much along the lines of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, my ultimate cheer-up read. A Man Called Ove is darker in its contents and themes, perhaps, but it’s definitely the same “vibe”.





There’s been a movie adaptation of A Man Called Ove (and also a stage production) – I watched the trailer on YouTube, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out to watch in full. I just can’t imagine how the comedy, so dark and perfect on the page, could translate to the screen. Backman has also since written several other novels, though (he’s now officially “Sweden’s most popular literary export since Stieg Larsson”), and I’m particularly interested to check out My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.

I’d love to recommend this as a book club read, but I feel like there’s a very good chance every book club in the world has read it already – once again, I’m late to the party. A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them – and I think we could all do with a few more of those.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Man Called Ove:

  • “i was looking for an uplifting book and this was recommended. 10+ chapters of a man who dislikes everyone and wants to kill himself is definitely NOT an easy listening or feel good read. i might be only slightly encouraged by the realization that i am markedly happier and nicer than Ove.” – Appalasia Farm
  • “Sad, but uplifting” – Geoff Burdge
  • “Signed my wife up for an Audible account. But she hated it. Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever.” – Argyle Shopper
  • “I could not wait for Ove to be Over.” – Marty


She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

This week’s selection from my reading list is a little treat for myself – it’s been a long year! And I’ve been wanting to read She Came To Stay for ages. It’s been sitting on my shelf tempting me, like a bottle of fine wine. I guess I was just waiting for The Right Moment(TM) to properly enjoy it, and as the year draws to a close, I can happily announce that the moment has finally come.

I was fairly confident that I’d find something of interest in She Came To Stay (or, in the original French, L’Invitée). It was renowned feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, published in 1943, a fictional account of her and Jean-Paul Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakievicz (to whom the book is dedicated). This will hardly come as a shock, but it turns out de Beauvoir had some hard feelings about the 17-year-old who “came between” her and Sartre, the love of her life, and in many ways She Came To Stay is her act of revenge. So, it’s already ticking a few boxes: feminism, thinly veiled autobiographical plot, and a tumultuous polygamous relationship. Goodie!

My only quibble with this edition is that it’s a bit of a #namethetranslator fail. The only information I could find was printed, in teeny tiny font, on the Copyright page: “This translation was first published by Secker & Warburg and Lindsay Drummond in 1949”, but as best I can tell, from what’s Google-able, the actual work of translation was done by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse. Do better, Harper Perennial!

But on with the story: She Came To Stay is set in Paris, around the time of WWII. A young, naive couple – Francoise and Pierre – are very proudly bohemian. They write, they’re in The Theater, and they have an “open” relationship (though it’s “unthinkable that they should ever tire of each other”). All of that is put to the test when Xaviere comes flouncing in. Basically, She Came To Stay is a cautionary tale about the dangers of poorly-planned polyamory, especially if you’re French and the teenager you take on as a third is a hot mess.



The character motivations are really complex, and hard to wrap your head around at times. Xaviere seemed like a real chore, to put it mildly – I struggled to understand why they kept her around at all. I’m guessing she was really-really-really-ridiculously-good-looking, but de Beauvoir doesn’t actually describe her physicality all that much, one of the many perks of reading books about women by women! I’m still not entirely sure I ever figured them out. Francoise and Pierre’s relationship is hardly healthy to begin with, but when Xaviere joins them, it goes from bad to worse. They’re exploitative, they’re voyeuristic, and they seem to really get off on emotionally abusing one another – it’s all very confronting.

There’s some timelessness to the broader themes, though. True to her reputation, de Beauvoir explored all kinds of existentialist philosophy, ideas of freedom, dependence, sexuality, and “the other”. If you’re not across your existentialist philosophising (hey, no judgement – it’d been a while for me, too!), it’s all about finding the self and the meaning of life through exploring the bounds of free will and personal responsibility. If those ideas grab you, then you’re going to want to give this book a go, because it’s got them all in spades.

de Beauvoir went to great lengths to impress upon the reader that Francoise always came second, in Pierre’s mind, to Xaviere – even though Francoise didn’t seem to realise it herself. The poor lamb falls into the trap of trying to be the “cool girl”, as most modern women do at some point in their lives. She lets his work take precedence, his sexual desires dominate, and she doesn’t dare tell him off (even when he’s being a huge prick). It’s not simple subservience, though. This notion of being “free”, being “open minded”, is a central tenant of Francoise’s identity. She’s not willing to sacrifice that for a silly little thing like emotional security.



Xaviere is unspeakably manipulative, so it’s a testament to Francoise’s strength of will that she’s able to put up with her for longer than five minutes. The teenage strumpet goes above and beyond to drive a wedge between Francoise and Pierre, and for a good two-thirds of the novel she has them dancing on her strings.

By all accounts, these relationship dynamics are the same as those that played out in de Beauvoir’s real-life ménage à trois. She and Sartre purported to value freedom and openness above all else, but clearly that didn’t work out, because she ended up writing She Came To Stay as a way of “dealing with” (her words!) the trauma of Sartre’s affair. This book is basically her equivalent of Taylor Swift’s reputation album.

I really wanted to like it. I was expecting another Jane Eyre or The Bell Jar. But, for the most part, She Came To Stay was just good. Not rush-out-into-the-street-and-shout-about-it good, just good enough to keep going. I felt like it was a bit too long; after just 150 pages, I was wondering where on earth it could possibly go, so the final sections dragged a bit. And the “shock twist ending” was kind of lost on me, I’m sorry to say. In a rare moment of fancy-pants literary high-mindedness, I assumed Francoise was being metaphorical when she (SPOILER ALERT!) described killing Xaviere. You know, I assumed it was a flight of fancy, killing the idea of Xaviere, rather than actually doing it. Not so, it turns out, and I only learned that later, reading up on the book to write this review. Whoops!



In some ways, though, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Francoise finishes off Xaviere to reclaim her own power, and to prove she’s no one’s second choice. In real life, de Beauvoir wrote this book to prove that she shouldn’t come second, either. Right? Maybe I’m stretching. The real-life story has a much happier ending, anyway, you’ll be pleased to know. de Beauvoir and Sartre stuck it out through the Olga years; they remained lovers, companions, and mutual editors until he passed away in 1980. de Beauvoir is now buried alongside him in Montparnasse, where they lived together for most of their lives. And she had a little fun of her own on the side, too; she had a long-running affair with American writer Nelson Algren, but her loyalty to Sartre, and her refusal to leave him, was the cause of its breakdown.

She Came To Stay isn’t Simone de Beauvoir’s best-known work, but I’m glad it was the one I started with. I’ll be reviewing her magnum opus, The Second Sex, here on Keeping Up With The Penguins soon: it’s a hugely-influential account of the status and nature of women in the mid-20th century, and it’s pretty much the reason we remember de Beauvoir as a pioneer of post-war feminism. And, for balance, I’ll be reviewing a collection of Sartre’s essays, too. Stay tuned…!

My favourite Amazon reviews of She Came To Stay:

  • “Nice reading, pages run quickly for a mediocre reader.” – 17a8m9a
  • “Book about pretentious Parisian snobs which somehow works out to be a most enjoyable and engaging read! Highly recommended. Loved the ending” – Petrarch’sGirl


Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

There are a handful of really chunky books on my original reading list, and this is one of them: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It seems like an age since I tackled any book even close to this long (David Copperfield was probably the only one that came close). I made sure to allot plenty of time and brain space for these 982 pages (plus introductory essays and notes). And I’m glad I did; it felt really good to immerse myself properly in Cervantes’ world, and stick with the one story for a while.

Don Quixote (original title: “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha”) was published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, with the first English translations appearing in 1612 and 1620, respectively. That makes it one of the oldest books in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, as well as one of the longest. It’s widely considered to be one of the most influential works of the literary canon, a foundational piece of modern Western literature. Don Quixote was officially deemed the Greatest Book Of All Time by the Nobel Institute, the various editions have sold in excess of 500 million copies worldwide, and this particular translation from John Rutherford won the 2002 Premio Valle Inclán Prize for Translation. Not bad, given that Cervantes was basically unknown before the first part was published, and spent much of his life on the run (he escaped prison – not once, not twice, but four times total).

The premise is this: a member of the lesser Spanish nobility (a “hidalgo”), Alonso Quixano, becomes unhealthily obsessed with chivalric romances. He takes it into his head to become a “knight-errant”, roaming the country performing acts of chivalry under the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. He ropes in Sancho Panza, a simple farmer with champagne dreams and a beer budget, to work as his squire. The book forms an interesting bridge between the early medieval romances, which were episodic and strung together a series of adventures with the same characters, and later modern novels, which focused more on the psychological evolution of its characters and their internal worlds. In Don Quixote, Cervantes managed to do both.



It all feels surprisingly familiar. Even the chapter titles sound like episodes of Friends: “Chapter III which relates the amusing way in which Don Quixote had himself knighted”, and so on. Cervantes certainly didn’t have any designs on founding the Western literary canon or anything of the sort. He just wanted to write a fun story that would give people a laugh or two, which is probably why his story is still so widely accessible and enjoyable for today’s readers. Of course, our understanding of it has changed over time; at first, we read it as a comic novel, as Cervantes intended, but then we started to read it as a tragic statement on disillusionment in society after the French Revolution. Later, we came to appreciate Don Quixote as a critical social commentary, but now we’ve circled around to finding it funny again. That said, I must say I’m stuck in the 20th century as far as literary critique of this one goes; critics in that era came to view the story as a tragedy, where Don Quixote’s simple idealism is rendered useless by a harsh reality. Sure, there are plenty of quick quips and slapstick encounters, but really, the truth at the heart of the story is a real bummer.

As I read it, Don Quixote seemed to be suffering from a debilitating delusional disorder, and yet everyone in his world just humoured him as he lived out his imaginary life. He was a danger to himself and others, and in today’s world we’d almost certainly subject him to some kind of psychiatric hold and get him treatment. What’s worse, he pulled Sancho Panza down with him, in a heart-breaking foile à deux that sees them repeatedly beaten, half-starved, and living in itinerant poverty for most of the book. The humour, in my view, was particularly dark, given that this ageing man’s poor mental health was the butt of most of the jokes. I found it all horribly sad.



And, of course, it’s hopelessly and irretrievably sexist, a product of its time. Almost every bloke is chasing after some beautiful woman’s virginity, which he calls her “honour” or her “jewel”, treating it as some prize they earn for gross displays of machismo. And there’s a lot of Madonna/whore smack talk. Really, the only man who seems woke in any measure is Sancho Panza, believe it or not. He has no interest in oppressing women, he just wants to get rich and fat. I respect that. Sancho’s long-suffering wife was my favourite character in the whole book, too:

“‘… you do as you please, because that’s the burden we women were born with, obeying our husbands even if they are damn fools.'”

Teresa Cascajo (page 520)

I hope I’m not putting you off, though, because honestly Don Quixote wasn’t bad. I just feel compelled to share the alternative view, like I’m the lone port in a sea of “but it’s so funny!”.

I particularly enjoyed instances of Cervantes breaking the fourth wall; he was way ahead of his time in terms of being meta. His characters were aware that they were being written about, and he often made direct nods and call-outs to the reader. In Part One, he included many back-stories of minor characters, and then in Part Two, he outright apologised for his many digressions and promised the reader to focus on the matter at hand (while simultaneously whingeing that his “narrative muse” had been restrained – and never fear, he still managed to cram plenty of these hilarious digressions into the second party anyway). I heard that several abridged editions actually remove some or all of these extra tales, focusing exclusively on the central narrative. That’s a shame, because some of them are really good – so, if you’re going to read Don Quixote, make sure you go with the OG full-version.

Trying to summarise or explain the full plot of Don Quixote is a fool’s game, and I’m not going to try it here. Over the course of their travels, the dynamic duo meet innkeepers, sex workers, goat herders, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, and spurned lovers, and Quixote manages to turn each and every encounter into a chivalric adventure of some kind. As much as he loves to intervene and prevent injustice, he’s also kind of an entitled prick and often refuses to pay his debts, which results in many near-scrapes and public humiliations (with poor Sancho often bearing the brunt). In the end, Quixote is strong-armed into returning home to live out the rest of his life as he really is, Alfonso Quixano, and he dies (essentially of depression) in the final chapter. I told you, it’s a real bummer!



There are a lot of fun facts and trivia in Don Quixote‘s history, particularly when it comes to language and translation. Firstly, its widespread popularity is the main reason modern Spanish exists in its current form, which is no small feat for one humble comic novel. Within the text itself, there are actually two types of Spanish spoken: a contemporary version spoken by most of the characters, which more or less matches today’s language, and Old Castillian, used by Don Quixote. It’s kind of like having the main character of a book speak Shakespearean English, while the rest of them speak like you and me; indeed, that’s how most contemporary English translations tell the story.

We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of his early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase was translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”, meaning something more like “time will tell”. Really, we’ve spent a couple hundred years mistranslating Quixote, and now we’re spending another couple hundred trying to correct all those mistakes. There have been five new English translations published since 2000. Obviously, I can’t speak to all of them, but I think John Rutherford did a cracking job with this one, so I’d highly recommend first-timers pick it up (and, as always, don’t skip the introduction – it’s full of interesting background and context that will help you understand and enjoy the story).

Don Quixote is a great book to read bit-by-bit; you want to sip it like wine, not chug it like beer. I’m really glad I set a lot of time aside to enjoy it properly. I think binge-reading it would make the episodes feel really repetitive, or ridiculous, or both. Plus, through the magic of incremental effort, the 982 pages fly by, and you’ll feel silly for ever having been intimidated by this doorstop book. Give it a go, and hustle back here to reassure me that this tale of an ageing poor man’s mental illness is at least equally as tragic as it is comic (it can’t just be me!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Don Quixote:

  • “I never read it and thought it was about time. Now I know and I’m of the believe that Mr Quixote and President Trump are kissing cousins” – Amazon Customer
  • “IS TO BIG” – Amazon Customer
  • “it is too long and too old. i got into the parts where he was fighting but everything else was a bore” – jeff rack
  • “5 star book, 1 star kindle version. Book stops approximately half way through, like, in mid-sentence. Had to go to the paperback to finish.

    Like the movie “Saving Private Ryan” ending (spoiler alert) just before they actually find Private Ryan.

    Like the movie “The Martian” ending with the dude still on Mars.

    You get the idea.

    Lame.” – Fake Geddy Lee
  • “It is supposedly a great Spanish classic but it is as bad as Shakespear. I got very little out of it.” – George Fox
  • “What an awful book. An old madman cruising the countryside and dragging his poor servant with him. Just an awful book.” – Bruce E. Paris



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