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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 364-374

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Symposium: Cervantes

Cervantes and the Indies

Diana de Armas Wilson


Cervantes's two major novels, Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and Persiles and Sigismunda (1617), are substantially enriched when linked to what the author himself called "the remote Indies" and, in a darker mood, the "refuge and haven of all the desperate men of Spain." 1 In a novel set in the same remote Indies centuries later, the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier describes a grain of rice, displayed in a provincial museum in Venezuela, "on which several paragraphs of Don Quixote had been copied." 2 I would propose the inverse of this minimalist fiction: that Don Quixote itself contains many "grains of rice" on which the Indies are inscribed, and that the posthumous Persiles contains even more.

In the first chapter of this last novel, for example, Cervantes uses a strange word--bejucos--for the "vines" tying up a raft somewhat implausibly designed to sail in the North Sea. 3 Instead of the conventional Castilian signifiers available to him, Cervantes chooses a word of Caribbean origins, specifically a taíno word, from a language assigned by linguists to the Arawakan family and traced back to the middle of the Amazon Basin. Cervantes may have accessed this term through various popular historiographers of the Indies, Fernández de Oviedo or López de Gómara. In Cervantes's fiction, these Caribbean vines are used to construct rafts that [End Page 364] sail to and from a violent "Barbaric Isle" whose inhabitants trade in gold and pearls, fight with bows and arrows, and communicate either by signs or through a kidnapped female interpreter--all practices that strenuously reference the New World. Cervantes's islanders, whom the text calls "barbarians," also eat a suggestively American diet, including a wheat-free bread. A century earlier, Peter Martyr had informed Europe about a bread "made from the cooked flour cazabi, a bread better suited to human stomachs than wheat bread." 4 Closer to Cervantes's day, Montaigne tasted what the inhabitants of Antarctic France (Brazil) used "in place of bread," which he pronounced "sweet and a little flat." 5 Aligning this New World "bread" with a suggestively American beverage, Cervantes depicts his barbarians as ritually drinking the powdered ashes of male human hearts for prophetic ends--a practice that might be called "heart-ash cannibalism."

Reading about this cannibal island may have moved Samuel Taylor Coleridge to remark, in an 1818 lecture, that in Cervantes's "Persilis [sic] and Sigismunda, the English may find the germ of their Robinson Crusoe"--a wholly ignored but by no means outrageous idea. 6 It complicates Ian Watt's notorious claim, in 1957, that the rise of the novel began with Defoe's Crusoe--a claim recanted by Watt a decade later but malingering in many American English departments. 7 If we think in terms of coevolutionary rather than evolutionary histories of the novel, focusing less on historical "origins" than on geographical events, we soon recognize that both the Spanish and English rises of the novel were linked to European voyages to America. More remarkable than Defoe's debt to Cervantes may be the debt of both writers to the Caribbean cannibals.

By comparison with the Persiles, allusions to the New World in Don Quixote seem less strident. Passages in this novel sometimes gesture to the New World directly, as in Don Quixote's fevered homage to the "very courteous Cortés" (2.8), or the Canon of Toledo's concern about the fourth act of plays being set in America (1.48), or Sancho Panza's comparison of the enchanted Dulcinea (the version of her that he's recycled) to a skilled Mexican horseman (2.10). 8 But Don Quixote also contains various oblique New World references, including the sly imitation of Columbus in the Dedication to Part Two, where Cervantes fictionalizes the arrival of a letter from "the great emperor of China," who begs him in Chinese ["en lengua chinesca"] for a copy of Don Quixote, Part One. That the Chinese...


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