July 12, 2010

Who was Sidi Hamid Benengeli?

Four hundred years ago, long before Spinal Tap, Miguel de Cervantes did not merely write Don Quijote; he created a mock history of his own work. In the books (the novel was published in two parts), we read that Don Quijote de la Mancha was a real person, whose history was first transcribed by a "Moor" named Sidi Hamid Benengeli, and then translated into Spanish by an unidentified translator; Cervantes is thus simply retelling and commenting upon an extant historical work, which has another author, and an anonymous translator.

Chapter 44 of Volume 2 opens with a summary of Sidi Hamid Benegeli's complaint on having to write at length about so few people: "... he was always having to write either about Don Quijote or about Sancho, without ever being able to spread himself more broadly, with other and more serious, not to say entertaining diversions and incidents, and he recorded that, being obliged to constantly bend his mind, his hand, and his pen to writing on just this one subject, and to expressing himself through the mouths of so few characters, was an intolerable struggle of no great benefit..."

The complaint ends with a request that we readers "...praise him, not so much for what he has written, as for what he has refrained from writing." And perhaps it is often true, that writers should be praised, not so much for what they have written, as for what they have left out.

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