Ledesma's title, El ingenioso hidalgo Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, was more in keeping with the spirit of this animated, appreciative life story -- too hypothetical in many cases to stand scholarly scrutiny, though generally respectful of the facts. It was written for the third Cervantes centennial, to clear up the persistent (the still persistent) popular confusion of Quixote and his author. In his own way Cervantes was no less improbable or hapless -- he distinguished himself beside Don Juan at Lepanto; later was caught by Turks and, because he happened to be carrying some impressive letters of recommendation -- suggesting a status he did not enjoy -- was held for ransom, for years, by Hassan Pasha. He was imprisoned repeatedly for debts and other money troubles and only came to write Quixote when he had given up hope of making a decent living. He was also, as a very young man, charged with what seems to have been assault and battery; Ledesma does not mention it, but concentrates instead on the marvelous textures of what must have been his experience -- in wild Seville (where rowdies shot out the eyes of heads displayed after executions) and stiff Madrid (where shanties were thrown up to house the hangers-on of Philip's court) and in Rome (where Cervantes went, if at all, to escape the police). That's the stuff that matters in this present-tense panorama, livened by every means at Ledesma's disposal, including a talent for caricature and insinuating wit. A great tragicomic spectacle even quibblers should find hard to resist.