Book review: 12 writers inspired by Shakespeare and Cervantes – and power of imagination

Twelve writers and their translators have produced some fine and unusual short stories that celebrate the right to read and to create

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 2:41pm

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories After Cervantes and Shakespeare

edited by Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia

And Other Stories

4.5/5 stars

On April 23, 1616, the world lost two literary titans: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. While both men have inspired legions of writers – all subsequent writers, you could say – what influence Shakespeare and Cervantes may have had on one another is hard to gauge. Some academics want to believe they met in Spain. A safer bet is that Shakespeare read Don Quixote. His friends included one of Cervantes’ translators and he collaborated on the play Cardenio – later lost – based on an episode from Quixote.

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For this anthology, editors Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia commissioned six Spanish-speaking novelists to write stories inspired by Shakespeare and six Anglophones to do the same for Cervantes. The result is much more than a celebration of contemporary and legendary writers: it’s about the global reach of the English and Spanish languages. It’s about the wonder of translation – because 12 translators were also commissioned to make the collection available in both Spanish and English. It’s about collaboration, between the Spanish government, the Hay festival, the British Council and the small but mighty publisher, And Other Stories. With contributions from countries where free speech can be dangerous, and with an introduction by Salman Rushdie, it’s also about the right to read, write and make up stories. There’s a lot to cheer about here.

As is bound to be the case with an anthology, some contributors meet the brief better than others. In a few cases the theme feels artificially attached. What comes across is how the ingenious gentleman from La Mancha captures imaginations to the exclusion of everything else Cervantes invented. It’s true that his other work was mostly inferior to Don Quixote, but the Exemplary Novels – also an anthology of 12 stories – contains some fine and unusual writing. Two of the writers, Nell Leyshon and Deborah Levy, take their cue from one of them, the strange story of “El licenciate Vidriera”, a student who thinks he is made of glass. Levy uses it to return to a subject she first wrote about in 2010, the true story of Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, who believed that she had swallowed a glass grand piano in her childhood.

The other four English-speaking writers stay with Don Quixote. Ben Okri recreates the episode from Part Two in which the knight walks into a printing shop and finds Don Quixote Part One on the press (and declares it should be burned for its impertinence). Okri’s Quixote is a character of Urhobo oral legend, wielding a machete to fight giants including Boko Haram and corrupt officials. For Kamila Shamsie he is a Pakistani Qissa-Khwan, or storyteller, whose job risks provoking jihadis. Visa requirements thwart his dream of visiting Qurtuba – the caliphate of Cordoba in Muslim al-Andalus.

The Spanish-speaking writers have ranged more widely, having more stories to work from. Yuri Herrera takes Coriolanus to Mexico. Juan Gabriel Vásquez transposes Julius Caesar to Bogotá, where it is Pablo Escobar who plans to “let slip the dogs of war”. His story is about the murder, on Escobar’s orders, of government minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. In Marco Giralt Torrente’s “Opening Windows” a young father called Claudio finds himself at a Spanish fiesta watching a skit in which his nephew, Amleto, unexpectedly acts out the domestic drama that’s been going on at home.

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My favourite is Valeria Luiselli’s “Shakespeare, New Mexico” set in the real ghost town of the title, once a mining town and now operating as a tourist attraction. In Luiselli’s story, translated by Christina MacSweeney, the town is populated by a troupe of historial re-enactors who are permanently in character and acting out events including murders and lynchings, even when there are no tourists to watch them. Engrossed in her part, the narrator starts plotting to extend her scene with Billy the Kid. It’s the kind of metafiction Jorge Luis Borges would have relished, and makes a literal truth of the line, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

The Guardian