October 3, 2013

Going Quixote


Perhaps the greatest legacy of Cervantes’s Don Quixote has been the complicated, laborious, and wildly over-budget projects that honor it: the most notorious example being Terry Gilliam’s film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which was dogged by flash floods, actor injuries, and the unanticipated presence of military fighter jets from a nearby NATO base flying overhead and ruining the sound. Gilliam’s epic failure (he once described it as a “film that didn’t want to be made”) then spawned the documentary “Lost in La Mancha,” in an appropriately Cervantesian turn. And before Gilliam, Orson Welles took a crack at it, but his version of “Don Quixote,” which he worked on for over thirty years, also foundered and was, in the end, left unfinished, even after he sunk his own and Frank Sinatra’s money into it.

There’s a distinct sense in such enterprises that, no matter how you attempt to pay homage to, borrow from, or shamelessly rip off Quixote, if it’s not a mess, then you’re not doing it right.

Turkish artists Şener Özmen and Erkan Özgen’s video project “The Road to the Tate Modern” is an especially great new entry in these ranks. In it, Özmen and Özgen, dressed in business suits and riding on donkey (technically, Özmen is on a horse, and Erkan Özgen, as his Sancho, is on a very short donkey), travel across the rocky Anatolian countryside, asking peasants how to get to the Tate Modern. When told that it’s “up in the mountains and pretty far away,” the pair remain undaunted: Özmen lowers his spear and they head off, very very slowly, in the presumed direction of the Tate. Here’s the video:

And now, the London publishers Visual Editions are trying their luck, with a new edition of Don Quixote to be designed by Fraser Muggeridge and with photos by Jacob Robinson. Robinson is a young photographer whose previous projects have focused on the architectural legacy of the Third Reich in Nuremberg, the tradition of dry stone walling, and the everyday domestic life of the British Armed Forces; and Muggeridge is a designer, typographer, and founder of Typography Summer School.

Visual Editions’ idea is to send Robinson around Spain in a camper van (if they make enough money with their Kickstarter campaign, which it looks like they might) to follow the trail of Quixote. There’s a map of Quixote’s journeys here, if you want to see what he’s in for. Once he’s gathered enough photographic material from the locations along the way, he’ll return to London and work with Muggeridge to create a version of Quixote that uses typography and Robinson’s photographs in madcap, antic and inspired ways.

The end result might look like this:

I picked up a copy of Visual Editions’ Tristam Shandy a couple of years ago, and it’s full of visual jokes, manicules, an unerring use of color, and some surprises — it’s definitely a book to geek out over, and bodes well for the similarly metafictional Quixote, with its layers of narrative and its constant satirical play on the tropes of chivalry, and indeed on the love of books themselves.

So, for the sake of the project, I hope that all goes to plan, that Robinson’s camera stays dry, Muggeridge doesn’t lose a finger in a paper guillotine snafu, the camper van steers steadily around every Andalusian switchback, and Spain doesn’t plunge into an infrastructure-crippling financial crisis (oh, wait…)

But to stay true to the spirit of an author who, along with Quixote, wrote a pretty genius talking dog story, and to make it an undertaking that can without qualification be called “quixotic,” I’m hoping that the road to La Mancha is at least occasionally encumbered with a belligerent inn-keeper or a balky donkey or an especially ominous wind turbine or maybe just the kind of disturbing, infuriating, and despair-inducing travel adventure that makes you say — four or five years later — “I think it was all supposed to be worth it, but I’m still just. not. sure.”


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.