There is a fictional Cervantes clearly represented in Don Quixote, but this character has not been recognized as such. Instead, other characters have been proffered as the fictional Cervantes.
In Don Quixote, the most common one on the fictional Cervantes list is Cide Hamete Benengeli, the author of the Arabic manuscript from which don Quixote’s story was translated (Part I, Chap. 9). Fermín Caballero said that if you make an anagram of Cide Hamete Benengeli you get Migel de Cebante, and five letters left over.9 Cervantes always wrote his name with a b instead of a v, which bolsters Caballero’s theory. But if Cervantes had added all the missing letters of his name and called his historian something like Cide Hasmete Bernengueli, it would have been clever, but it would not have made Benengeli into the fictional Cervantes.
The reason that Cide Hamete cannot be the fictional Cervantes is partly because Cide Hamete wrote only in Arabic, and Cervantes wrote only in Spanish; and Cervantes, in the real world, created a book of fiction called The ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha, written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, but in the world of fiction, Cide Hamete Benengeli created a book of history called History of don Quixote de La Mancha, by Cide Hamete Benengeli, Arabic historian.
Aside from the native language problem and the names of the real and fictional versions of the work, there are other things. I cannot see Cervantes referring to himself as “that dog of an author,” or as a person who has a reputation for lying (Part I, Chap. 9). Cide Hamete is not the fictional Cervantes.
The narrator of the story, the one who in the first line of the book doesn’t quite remember what village don Quixote is from, the person who later will refer to himself as the second author, is the second candidate for the fictional Cervantes. Américo Castro, in his article “Cide Hamete Benengeli: el cómo y el por qué,” published in the Paris journal Mundo nuevo (Nº 8, 1967, p. 6), states that: “Cervantes found the original of his greatest work in Toledo.” This is absolutely astonishing to me, especially in the light of who said it. Did the real Cervantes plunge into the world of fiction and there purchase that famous Arabic manuscript? Castro is here equating Cervantes—the man of flesh and blood—with the book’s unnamed narrator whom he has dubbed “Cervantes” and whom he doubtless believed to be the fictional Cervantes.
Jay Allen refers to the narrator as Cervantes’ fictional self in Don Quixote: Hero or Fool (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1969, p. 11). “This fictional Cervantes is not a simple copier but a dedicated researcher,” he says. We do know a few things about how the narrator worked, his attitudes, and what he could find out, and these do not equate him with Cervantes. Here is one example: the narrator could never find out what the hero’s last name was, no matter where he looked; yet if Cervantes himself were the narrator it would be within his province to assign a last name, without archives and without research of any kind. Instead, Cervantes opted to create a character who could never locate what the elusive name might be. The narrator is not the fictional Cervantes.
Another candidate for the fictional Cervantes is don Quixote himself. It is true that Cervantes’ age “was close to fifty” just like don Quixote’s (Part I, Chap. 1) and he was concerned with literature, just like his hero, but novels of chivalry didn’t drive him mad, they only made him mad. There is a biography of Cervantes called The Man who was Don Quixote, in which Rafaello Busoni approximates Cervantes to don Quixote through manipulation of facts and a fanciful imagination (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1958). Interesting reading, but far from true. In Man of La Mancha, Dale Wasserman also equates the two. It is unquestionably a terrific musical play, but it has little to do either with Cervantes or don Quixote.
Here, finally, is a good example of a fictional representation of Cervantes. When don Quixote’s library is being scrutinized for heretical books, the priest, talking about La Galatea, says: “For many years that Cervantes has been a great friend of mine, and I know that he’s more versed in misfortunes than verses” (Part I, Chap. 6). This Cervantes appears real, of course, because we know his name, we know that the real La Galatea is his, and we know something about his life’s troubles. But—and this is important—since the priest never lived in the real world but rather in the fictional one, it stands to reason that any friend of his, including that Cervantes whom he mentioned, would have to be fictional, too. We are also talking about a fictional La Galatea. This Cervantes is a fictional Cervantes, but a minor one.
On a second occasion, in the Captive’s Tale, we learn of an imprisoned soldier with the name “So-and-So de Saavedra” (Part I, Chap. 40). Annotators comment that “This is Cervantes himself” or “Here Cervantes refers to himself.” But Cervantes has not put himself into the novel, but rather a fictional representation of himself. Cervantes was imprisoned in the real Algeria, the “So-and-So de Saavedra” was imprisoned in the Algeria of fiction, where he was seen by the Captive. Although the reference is fleeting, this is a second example of a fictional Cervantes.
The principal fictional Cervantes is the person who speaks in the prologue of Part I. Howard Mancing, in his book The Chivalric World of Don Quixote (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982, p. 192), says: “No one, to my knowledge, doubts that the [‘I’] of the prologue is anyone other than the person referred to on the title page… Miguel de Cervantes.” But I doubt it. This person—this character—is not Miguel de Cervantes from the title page (that’s the real one), but rather a fictional representation of Cervantes, a character created by Cervantes as another element in his fiction.
What has tricked us about Cervantes’ prologue is that it really sounds like the author’s own voice before his narrator takes over when the novel begins. In this ironic introduction we see a perplexed author not knowing how to make his book more acceptable or more learnèd owing to his feeble intellect. All of a sudden, an unnamed friend pops in and tells him what to do. Did someone really visit Cervantes when he had his pen behind his ear, his elbow on his desk, and his cheek in hand, and give to him the advice recorded in the prologue? No, of course not—it is all fiction.
Many people have been fooled by this prologue. Francisco Vindel, in his long-forgotten radio broadcast of April 27, 1934, called “Cervantes, Robles and Juan de la Cuesta,” actually set out to prove who this mysterious caller was who visited his author friend in that impromptu and providential fashion. Vindel tells us that it had to be Francisco de Robles, the bibliophile bookseller in whose shop Don Quixote would soon be sold. Who knows, maybe Robles did in fact inspire that character, but it does not make that character the real Robles.
Many readers have pitied don Quixote because the poor crazy fellow believed that the fictional knight Amadís de Gaula really existed, really lived, and really engaged in eternal battles in real life. And many are sorry for don Quixote because he confused fiction with reality—he could never tell what was real, what was fiction, or what was his own imagination.
Many also fail to make this same distinction between what is fiction—everything that happens in Don Quixote—and real life, by assigning the real person, Miguel de Cervantes, to different roles in that book—the narrator, the Arabic historian, the “second author,” and/or the protagonist himself. Real people cannot act in works of fiction, although fictional representatives of themselves can. The only true fictional Cervantes is the one who speaks in the Prologue of Part I, and this one is light years away from being the real Cervantes.10