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April 19, 2010 in Metafiction, Metajournalism, Metamusic, Metanonfiction, MetaTV | Tags: Avellaneda, cervantes, Don Quixote, fiction, literary criticism, Metafiction, novels, storytelling | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Comments closed
Last week’s post talks about metafiction and what exactly it is. I argued that structures and constructions that use the story-within-the-story format are inherently metafictional because their simple existence provides commentary on the storytelling process.
Now it’s time to back up my claims! I’ll use Don Quixote as an example, because it features two of the more common story-in-story tropes.
In the second volume of Don Quixote (published about ten years after the first), the story within the story comments on Spanish society at the time, as well as defends the book against a “false” second volume released by one of Cervantes’ critics. It also draws attention to the fictional devices of the novel because the story within the story is, in fact, Don Quixote!
It’s pretty easy to see why that first trope is metafictional, so what about the second?
There’s another story within the story in the first book of the novel. “Cervantes” appears as a narrator, and delivers this tale as if it were a legend. He tells it to us in a rather conversational manner.
That first story within a story is interesting to look at, because although Cervantes appears as a character, he does not appear as a writer—in the novel he is collecting this legend and recounting it, but he is not writing it, although it is written down by an Arab historian, and he has it translated.
The fact that he has to have the legend translated by a friend does imply some form of writing, but that is overpowered by the way Cervantes recounts the story much the way one would share a story around a campfire. He draws attention to different “versions” of the story, and freely admits some things have been forgotten.
In this first book, Character-Cervantes becomes a storyteller, not a writer. And despite that, despite the fact that Cervantes does not go out of his way to shout “look at me, I’m writing a book about writing a book aren’t I so clever???” the first installment of Don Quixote does draw an incredible amount of attention to its own conventions without being obvious.
The story of Don Quixote, not the novel Don Quixote, makes fun of the Spanish obsession with novellas de caballaria, or novels about heroic knights. Author-Cervantes takes into account the way these stories are told and puts a twist on that when he tells his story, so the format/story frame does also comment on the novellas de caballaria.
Although there are two different levels of commentary in the first book, Cervantes could have achieved the same storytelling commentary had he made up another character (instead of using himself) to tell the story. Of course, Cervantes wanted to do much more than comment on storytelling.
The narrator, who speaks in first person, tells us the story of Don Quixote as if it were a legend, and brings in a proxy narrator in Cide Hamete Benengeli, the Arab historian who’s recorded the entire “legend.”
So, if you take Cervantes out of that picture, I believe the way he tells the story, and brings in Benengeli (making it a book-within-a-book, or more appropriately, a-bunch-of-scrolls-within-a-book), does in fact still comment on the storytelling and writing process.
So what does it say?
It says that people change stories, either for their own purposes or because they forget. It says that society is fascinated with larger-than-life people, whether because they are great or because (as in this case) they are “crazy,” and by extension it shows us glimpses of our voyeuristic nature.
I see all story-within-story constructions as metafictional in this way, but I will concede that not everyone will. But, I, having an unhealthy obsession with metafiction and structure, am wont to go looking for metafiction in unusual places. I love stretching the boundaries of genre, metafiction being no exception.
What do you think? Are all stories-within-stories metafictional, does it depend on the story, or am I full of doggie doo? Leave a comment and let me know!
Miguel de Cervantes may not have invented metafiction, but he did take it to the next level when he wrote The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, one of the first—and still one of the best—modern novels. Cervantes published part one in 1605 and part two in 1615.
I was forunate enough to read this book for the first time in Alcalá de Henares, the town in which Cervantes was born, and where all of his contemporaries studied. I went into my reading expecting to be bored to tears, but having the book put in its proper historic and social context made me realize that the Quixote is about much, much more than a lunatic chasing windmills. Not only is it a story within a story, but a story within a story within a story, and Cervantes uses that story within a story within a story to make one of the most hilarious social commentaries this world will ever see.
Cervantes begins the book with who we eventually learn is Character-Cervantes, the narrator. He writes as if he’s telling the story directly to you, as if it’s a legend. In fact, he’s not even sure what the main character’s real name originally was. Quexana? Quesada? Accounts differ (Chapter I). He sets it up to be a grand tale akin to a Greek epic poem, but in Chapter VIII, when Don Quixote is in the middle of a battle to the death, the story stops.
“But it spoils all, that at this point and crisis the author of the history leaves this battle impending, giving as excuse that he could find nothing more written about these achievements of Don Quixote than what has been already set forth.”
In Chapter IX, Character-Cervantes relates how he discovered the rest of the legend of our brave knight in a marketplace, written in Arabic on some old papers. He tells us the papers were written by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, and that a friend translated them into Spanish. So now, it is Benengeli who tells the story, although Character-Cervantes interjects every so often.
In 1614, someone writing under the pseudonym Avellaneda put out a second Don Quixote book that heavily criticized Cervantes and the world he’d created. While Don Quixote is certainly farcical, it is, at its core, an intelligent and hilarious commentary on the Spanish obsession with novellas caballerscas—adventure novels about knights.
The false Quixote is anything but intelligent and hilarious. Of course, it is possible, even probable, that Cervantes would have never finished part two without the Avellaneda book.
After his first (mis)adventure, Don Quixote’s niece and housekeeper lock him up in the house so he can’t wander off again. But one day Sancho comes over and informs his master that Samson Carrasco has just returned from his studies with a book entitled The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha—and most of Spain has read it, and loved it (Chapters II and III).
“…Some swear by the adventure of the windmills that your worship took to be Briareuses and giants; others by that of the fulling mills; one cries up the description of the two armies that afterwards took the appearance of two droves of sheep; another that of the dead body
on its way to be buried at Segovia…” says Samson.
Now, there’s the story of Don Quixote within the second part of Don Quixote, which was already framed inside Benengeli’s history told by Character-Cervantes. To top it all off, in Chapter LIX, Don Quixote and Sancho encounter some characters who are reading the false Quixote. Cervantes takes the opportunity to tear the novel apart. That adds another layer to the structure, making it two stories within a story within a story.
Cervantes didn’t use the stories-within-a-story-within-a-story structure for the hell of it, either. This structure (to say very little about the content itself) accomplishes several goals:
1. It creates at least three layers for Author-Cervantes to work with in commenting on and criticizing knight adventure novels, the people who read them, Spanish society and other authors who criticized Cervantes.
2. It creates a dialogue between what’s fiction and what’s real. Character-Cervantes tells us that Benengeli wrote a true history, but he also tells us that all Arabs are liars. Since Benengeli is Arab, he must be a liar, so how could he write a true story?
Samson then brings up a point about the difference between historians and storytellers: “The poet may describe or sing things, not as they were, but as they ought to have been; but the historian has to write them down, not as they ought to have been, but as they were, without adding anything to the truth or taking anything from it” (Part II, Chapter III).
There’s a poet (Cervantes) writing the book that is supposed to be the history of a knight-errant recorded by a lying Arab historian (Benengeli), which creates even more truth-fiction tension. Cervantes, as the poet, should be the liar, but instead it’s the historian. Who’s a poor reader to trust?!
3. It gives Cervantes a clever—and reasonable within the framework of the book—way to correct some of the errors he made in the first part of the novel that Avellaneda pointed out in the false Quixote and address the criticisms Avellaneda made. Cervantes was not always so great about keeping his details straight, but of course, for each knight adventure story there were ten novels with ten different endings, so it’s possible this was a conscious choice that wound up looking sloppy.
Brilliant, isn’t it?