Spanish Identity in the Land of Don Quixote

Novelist Ana Iris Simón has created a political debate over Spanish identity with her recent novel, Feria, which is set in Campo de Criptana in rural La Mancha.

The New York Times reports that the novel is “based on her childhood in the arid heartland of Spain, with parents who were postal workers and grandparents who were farmers on one side, traveling fairground workers on the other. Little happens, but that is intentional — she wants readers to appreciate her rural upbringing in Castilla-La Mancha, the region made famous by the Cervantes classic, Don Quixote.”

The small town of Campo de Criptana is situated in the heart of La Mancha, which is known for its historic windmills, many of them dating from the sixteenth century.

Campo de Criptana. Photo: The New York Times

Some far-right Spanish politicians have seized on the novel’s nostalgia portrayal of rural life, even if Ana Iris Simón has a record of supporting socialist causes and protesting against economic inequality. The novelist is currently working as a journalist with El País, a major Spanish news organization.

“The book has struck a chord with readers, but it has also become a lightning rod in Spain’s emotional political debate, fueled by party fragmentation and polarization. Ms. Simón said her book had been interpreted as ‘a questioning of the dogmas of liberalism,’ to an extent that she had not anticipated.”

Pablo Simón, a professor of Political Science at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid comments that Feria has has created controversy because “even if it is a novel and not a political treaty, the book ascertains that the current generation is worse off than the previous ones, which is a claim that is easy for politicians to use, even if it is not necessarily based on facts,” according to The New York Times. Note that the political scientist was presumably referring to a political treatise, not a “political treaty.”

I have not had a chance to read the novel, and will likely wait until an English translation is published, since my Spanish is rusty. However, I am interested to see how Spanish identity politics develops in response to the book.

As an early modern historian, I am particularly curious how the “traditional” idea of Spanishness and the imagery of Don Quixote are being deployed in this debate. The historic windmills of La Mancha seem likely to continue to figure in debates over Spanish identity.

Miguel de Cervantes immortalized the windmills of La Mancha in his novel, Don Quixote (1605): “Just then, they discovered thirty or forty windmills in that plain. And as soon as don Quixote saw them, he said to his squire: “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we could have ever hoped. Look over there, Sancho Panza, my friend, where there are thirty or more monstrous giants with whom I plan to do battle and take all their lives, and with their spoils we’ll start to get rich. This is righteous warfare, and it’s a great service to God to rid the earth of such a wicked seed.” [Proyecto Cervantes]

Cervantes’s novel was written during the European Wars of Religion and raises many interesting questions about identity, politics, religion, violence, noble culture, and society in early modern Spain and its empire. The book has been celebrated as one of the first novels, arguably influencing the form of the modern novel. So, perhaps it not surprising to find Don Quixote at the center of debates about Spanish identity once again.

Ana Iris Simón, Feria (Círculo de Tiza, 2020).

The publisher, Círculo de Tiza, provides a book description on its webpage.

The New York Times reports on Ana Iris Simón’s novel.

The tourist office of Castilla-La Mancha maintains a webpage on Campo de Criptana.

El País reports regularly on Spanish politics and has an English edition.

For an online edition of Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, in English translation, see the Proyecto Cervantes at Texas A&M University. The first edition, Miguel de Cervantes, El Ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, compuesto por Miguel de Cervántes Saavedra… (1605), may be downloaded from Gallica at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

This entry was posted in Cultural History, Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, Empires and Imperialism, European History, European Studies, European Union, European Wars of Religion, History of the Western World, Mediterranean World, Noble Culture and History of Elites, Political Activism and Protest Culture, Political Culture, Reformation History, Renaissance Art and History, Warfare in the Early Modern World, World History. Bookmark the permalink.

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