Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Classic

"Ahia, why did Sancho Panza go crazy at the end of Don Quixote?"

"Hmmm? Sancho Panza did not go crazy in the end. Or anywhere in the book."

Some conversations, no matter how mundane, stay with you throughout your life. And this was the start of one of those. My sister was working on her world literature assignment, and that point had her stumped. This was a decade ago. She was in high school and I, some years out of college, was the family know-it-all. But I always have been.

"But that's the question! So what am I supposed to answer?" she persisted.

"Well, write down, 'Sancho Panza did not go crazy in the end,'" I said. If I answered with more confidence than was proper, it was because I had read the unabridged "Don Quixote" (admittedly, translated) from cover to cover. Let her teacher argue with me on that!

As I relate this story more than ten years after, I feel the irrepressible urge to apologize. Not that my answer was wrong -- on that I still hold firm -- but because, well, I read a classic.

Mark Twain once said that a classic is a book that everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read. I suspect that early in my generation that sardonic observation became a rule. Reading a classic consigned you to terminal dweebiness, more so if you admitted to the deed.

In my defense permit me to lay out the extenuating circumstances. I was simply motivated by the desire not to be ignorant. I felt, as all students undoubtedly feel, that there was something lacking in my education. In the absence of a mentor, my response was to turn to the classics.

It became a personal goal in college to read through at least one classic every summer. Some, like "Moby Dick", proved to be real chores, but others, like "A Tale of Two Cities", proved to be quite pleasant. "Don Quixote" definitely fell into the latter category.

"Don Quixote" may look daunting because of its length, but it was written for peasant sensibilities. What's more, the humor is so very accessibly Pinoy. I had several giggly fits and a few laugh-out-loud moments (Sancho Panza's penance being the funniest.) Not at all surprising, really, if you consider its node in our own cultural family tree.

Did "Don Quixote" make me a better person? Well, the jury is still out on that: a little learned on the one hand, a terminal dweeb on the other. That's what happens, I guess, when you read the classics unaided. But was it worth it? If only for the conclusion to my exchange with my sister, then yes.

A few days later, my sister came back to me wearing a reproachful frown. "Ikaw man gud! Tan-awa na, maba akong grado sa essay."

I handed her my copy of "Don Quixote." And I said: "Ask your teacher: 'where in the book does it say that Sancho Panza went crazy?'"

The following day, I got the answer. "Ma'am said she didn't actually read the book, she only saw it in the encyclopedia."

Classic, man.