A picaresque first novel evokes 17th-century La Mancha and its odd inhabitants, not least of them Spain’s most famous writer.
It’s a premise to do Borges proud: “the author of Don Quixote, one Miguel Cervantes, deceased” authorizes a new author, whose mind “has never found a true purchase in a worthy ideal,” to continue the tale of the Knight of Woeful Countenance, and said heir makes good. British writer Branston does a fine job of channeling Cervantes, capturing the original’s stateliness and good-natured scenarios, and turning in a sometimes riotous, sometimes-somber story in which Quixote’s author meets his own creation. Cervantes, it develops, has a Sancho Panza–like pal named Pedro, whose ambition it was “to be the world’s finest merchant in traded goods” and who seems to know everyone worth knowing; the old knight, just released from a lunatic asylum after a 20-year hitch, is just one of his acquaintances, and in due course other characters reminiscent of those in the original Quixote fall in to take their part in the madcap adventures. This being a postmodern work, though without the reverential self-referentiality of so much of its breed, Branston makes a few digs at the business of writing and publishing. Most of his efforts, however, are directed at delivering a reasonable simulacrum of Cervantine storytelling, and in this he acquits himself nobly. Indeed, in his hands Cervantes himself becomes a fine hero, as he was in real life; readers will find it richly satisfying to see the famed author, armed with “more-than-regulation-length sword,” attending to miscreants and book pirates even as the forlorn Errant Knight bumbles and stumbles across the parched countryside, fighting for truth, justice and the chivalric way.
Readers well acquainted with Quixote will see some of Branston’s episodes coming a league away. Even so, he breathes new life into a classic but little-read tale. A pleasure through and through.