Spanish Mythologies: The Real Cervantes

Last week it was the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain's most celebrated writer. His flagship work, Don Quixote is the story of an ageing knight who can't separate fact from fiction. But how do we separate fact from fiction when it comes to the author's own life? What we know about Cervantes the man comes from his own quill - fleeting cameos in fictional narratives. Can we gain a clear picture of who he was from these cameos in his books? Is there any fact - any at all - among the fiction?

Of all the portraits claiming to be originals, an oleum attributed to artist Juan de Jáuregui is perhaps the most famous depiction of Cervantes. Certainly in the (partly autobiographical) Novelas Ejemplares, Cervantes states that the artist Jáuregui did indeed paint him. And the painting in question carries both Jáuregui's and Cervantes' names.

However, the painting, currently hanging in Madrid's Real Academia de la Lengua, is not believed to be autentico by experts. First off, its date (1600) would make Jáuregui only 16 years old - hardly time enough to establish a formidable reputation. Second, 'Don' is written ahead of Cervantes' name. A title that Cervantes never used. Third, the painting itself is poorly executed and shows signs of several adjustments, patches and later additions. In short, it's not kosher.

Experts today insist there is not a single authentic painting of Cervantes. All we have to go on are two bits of written evidence. Both of them come from the prologue in Novelas Ejemplares. Written by none other than Cervantes himself:

'This man you see here, of an aquiline face, chestnut hair, smooth and open forehead, with happy eyes and curving, though well-proportioned nose; the silver beard, which only twenty years ago was of gold, the long whiskers, the small mouth, neither overcrowded or overgrown with teeth, of which there are only six, and those in poor condition and worse presented, as there is no correspondence between one and the other; the body is between two extremes, neither large nor small, of a healthy colour, more white than brown; weighed down by the shoulders and not much lighter of foot; this, I tell you, is the appearance of the author of Galatea and Don Quijote de la Mancha.

From his own quill we also learn that Cervantes, in total contradiction of the popular image reresented in paintings and sketches, wore spectacles, which he described with typical comic relish as a pair of 'broken eggs.'

But, even if the subject is himself, can we trust the words of a man famous for his fiction? For his love of parody and satire?

The son of a barber-surgeon, Cervantes was born in the city of Alcala de Henares on September 29 1547. Of that we can be sure, as he refers to it as his hometown, and he was baptized there. His formative years are difficult to piece together, although it's known that the young Miguel made his first tentative steps into the world of literature in the late 1560s after moving to Madrid, where he enjoyed the plays of Lope de Rueda at the theatre, attended the Estudio de la Villa and published two poems in a book by his teacher there, the humanist Juan López de Hoyos.

A legal document dating back to the year 1596 states that in Madrid in that year a certain Miguel de Cervantes was due to be arrested because of a duel with a master builder called Antonio Sigura. That Cervantes the writer turns up in Italy later in the same year, offering his services to the important clergyman Giulio Acquaviva, seems to support the idea that it was the same man. For every modern-day guide in Madrid this assumption forms the backbone of early Cervantes legend. It's the pleasing narrative of the romantic, wayward youth who gets into trouble with the authorities and has to go into exile

What next? After travelling around Italy's main cities with the Cardenal Giulio Acquaviva, Cervantes then enlists as a soldier in the tercios (the dreaded Spanish infantry units) under Miguel de Montcada and joins the crew of the galleon Marquesa. It's on board this galleon in 1571 that, with characteristically impeccable narrative timing, he joins another 90,000 men sailing into one of the most important maritime battles in Mediterranean history: The Battle of Lepanto.

A monumental naval ding-dong between the Pope-sponsored, Spanish-led fleet of the Santa Liga (a pan-European, Catholic alliance) and that of the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, the Battle of Lepanto took place off the coast of Corinth in Greece and was responsible for handing the balance of power into Spanish hands against their biggest rival.

There's a huge replica of one of the galeras used at the Battle of Lepanto in the Museo Marítim de Barcelona. An extraordinary, nightmarish thing daubed in garish gold and vermillion, it was the buque isignia, the flagship of the royal force, named La Real. Thanks to a legal document describing the writer's involvement at Lepanto we can picture Cervantes leaping about on such a ship during the very same battle. 'Many friends told him he was ill and feverish and should not fight, that he should stay below deck and Miguel de Cervantes replied what people would say about him if he did not, and that he wished to die serving God and King...from that naval battle he emerged injured by two arquebus shots in the chest and the hand, which was spoiled.'

Unfortunately this legal document - known as La Información de Argel, - was probably scripted by Cervantes himself in some self-promoting cause. Once again, our picture of Cervantes comes from his very own quill.

El manco de Lepanto. The Lepanto amputee. This was the nickname Cervantes was hereafter given following the Battle of Lepanto. Whether his arm was actually amputated or just disabled is still a matter of debate among academics. 'Manco' could mean either. His immediate re-appareance in the army the following year, suggests the injury could not have been too bad. The next three years he spent sailing along the Italian coast with the legendary captain Lope de Figueroa, who would later appear in a play by Calderon de la Barca - el Alcalde de Zalamea.

Then in 1575 came another impossibly exciting chapter in the Cervantes romance. While returning to Spain from Naples, off the coast of Cadaques - he was captured by Barbary corsairs, along with his brother Rodrigo, and was taken as a slave to Algiers, at that time the most populous and cosmopolitan port in the Mediterranean, and one of the chief headquarters for piracy.

That Cervantes spent five years in the bagnios of Algiers waiting for his ransom to be paid we know thanks once again to the dodgy legal document, La Información de Argel, transcribed by Cervantes. But it's also backed up by the eye witness and fellow author Antonio de Sosa in his Diálogo de los Mártires de Argel, and two of Cervantes' plays, El Trato de Argel and Los Baños de Argel (about two christian slaves trying to preserve their moral essence in an aggressive alien culture). In these works there are brief cameos by a soldier-slave called Saavedra, a name which Cervantes seems to have earned during his time on the Barbary Coast. The most likely explanation for this appendage is that his war injury earned him an Algerine nickname - in local dialect 'Shaibedraa' means 'lame arm'.

Being a captive apparently didn't put a halt to Cervantes' larger-than-life adventures. The stories of his escape from the bagnios for instance sound magnificently far-fetched. He hid in caves close to the sea on one occasion, waiting for his liberated brother Rodrigo to send a frigate from Spain, before being arrested; marched 400 kilometres to Oran on another occasion, before getting lost and turning back to captivity; and finally tried one last time to flee with 600 other Christians on an armed frigate. That he was never dealt the traditional punishment for these repeated escape attempts - impalement - seems odd, like the kind of plot defect you're expected to overlook in a Bond movie - oversuspension of disbelief, perhaps. But again, the clergyman Antonio de Sosa is on hand to back him up.

Eventually Cervantes' bagnio ordeal ends in anticlimax. His mother manages to find 300 ducats, and secure his liberty to return to Spain. Whatever really happened during this period, the traumatic experience of captivity was instrumental in creating a 'testimonial imperative' - or what the captivity-trauma psychologist Dori Laub calls 'the need to not only survive to tell the story, but tell the story to survive.' As Cervantes had previously been planning to become a captain and continue sailing, but hereonafter decided to return to court in Madrid and publish the pastoral romance La Galatea, his long-term seclusion in Algiers can be seen as the birth of a new Cervantes; one who wished to put dangerous adventures behind him and take up la pluma, the quill, to make sense of them.

Following La Galatea (1785), Cervantes would go on to write numerous plays and works of fiction, including his iconic work Don Quijote in two parts (1605 and 1615), whilst working as a fundraiser and tax collector for the King. His misadventures, though, weren't entirely over. According to legend he would have an affair with an innkeeper's wife, with whom he would have a child (Isabella de Saavedra); he would marry a teenager called Catalina de Salazor, in a small town near Toledo, from whom he would separate after two unhappy, childless years; and he would be imprisoned twice - once for appropriating public funds owed to the King. Finally on April 22, 1616, one day before Shakespeare's death, he would die of diabetes in what is now called La Casa de Cervantes, in Madrid's Barrio de las Letras. His legacy is gargantuan; he was the first novelist, creating a new form of narrative story-telling which would be copied century after century, earning him the honour of his language, Castillian, being dubbed 'la lengua de Cervantes'.

As most of the documentation of his life was written by the man himself, we may never know how much of it is actually true. Our glimpses of Cervantes are cameos in works of fiction. As such, Cervantes, like Shakespeare, remains a writer whose character and life is enshrouded in as much doubt, mystery and romance as the characters of his works. His life is, in essence, an adventure novel, written by himself.

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