One of my great humiliations is that I have not yet read Don Quixote, or, until now, any Cervantes at all. A tragedy! Especially because his Dialogue of the Dogs, first published in 1613, is perfectly delicious.
The dialogue is preceded by “The Deceitful Marriage,” the story of a poor soldier who has been taken in by an equally poor Doña and married her under the pretence that she was well-off. Well, and she was also taken in by him, and married him under the pretence that he was well-off. Of course! This poor soldier, recovering from the wrongs done him, overheard two guard-dogs talking to each other one night outside his window. When he meets a friend, he relates to him the dialogue of the dogs.
The dogs, Berganza and Scipio, find themselves unexpectedly able to talk, and since they’ve spent their whole lives up to then mute, they have a lot to say. They agree that that night, Berganza will tell Scipio his life story, and if they still have the gift of the gab the next night, Scipio will do the same. Thence ensues a comic dialogue roundly satirizing human life. The dogs are Cervantes’s perfect mouthpiece.
Berganza on pastoral romances: “all those books are dreamy things, well enough written for the diversion of layabouts, but without a whit of truth.”
On gossip and sniping: “wrongdoing and calumny are human nature. We drink them in with our mothers’ milk. A child barely out of his swaddling clouts will raise a vengeful hand against anyone who denies him, and almost the first word out of his mouth is to call his nanny or mother a whore.”
On so-called scholars who pepper their speech with Latin: “In Roman times everybody spoke Latin as their mother tongue, yet there must’ve been some morons even then. Speaking Latin didn’t absolve them of stupidity.”
And now Scipio, on pretty euphemisms: “You’re wrong if you think it’s not rude and crude to call things by their right names, as if it weren’t better, if you have to call them something, to use roundabouts and curlicues to get around the unpleasantness of hearing them described clearly. Handsome is as handsome sounds.”
On official corruption: “Sure, they’re not all crooks. Many, many notaries are good, faithful, and law-abiding, and only want to be of service without hurting anybody. Not all of them paper you to death with lawsuits, or leak information to the other side, or pad their hours. Nor do they go poking into strangers’ lives to drum up business, or get in bed with the judge to play ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’”
I do tend to enjoy many classical dialogues, but this one also has wider appeal. Since Berganza is recounting the really action-packed story of his whole life and all his masters, it has a story that holds the interest and does much more than dryly philosophize. And David Kipen’s translation, while I can’t comment on its accuracy, is fresh and extremely readable.