Cervantes and the Spanish State

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of Don Quixote, is widely believed to be the greatest of Spanish writers. It is not hard to conflate him with Spain, since his statue stands outside the Chamber of Deputies, the powerful lower house of the Spanish parliament.

I’d passed this statue a few times on my way to various museums and the Atocha station of Madrid, and said to myself that I would come back to take a photo. When I did I was very happy to see an irreverent line of half-empty glasses of orange juice lined up on the pedestal (look carefully at the featured photo). I was happy for two reasons, the first is that it allows me to digress a little on the wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice that you get in every bar and cafe. My travels in Spain were made so much more delightful by this lovely fresh and tart drink. The second is that this irreverence seems to be part and parcel of the Spain that I saw and liked.

If you look carefully at the photo you will also see the lone guard with a machine gun standing at the top of the stairs of the Chamber of Deputies. My impression of the basic openness of Europe was formed when I bumped, quite literally, into heads of state, not once but twice. In many parts of the world the government and the governed are never so close, even if the state calls itself a democracy. Perhaps this has changed now, but a single armed guard in front of a country’s parliament seems to say that the change is not too deep, yet.

In the time of Cervantes the Spanish state was different: much concerned with thought crime. The Spanish Inquisition was founded even before the territorial consolidation of 1492. A large part of Cervantes’ life was spent as a soldier in the frontiers of a war that the world seems to be fighting again. But he is remembered now as the creator of that acme of idealism: Don Quixote. Such contradictions mirror Spain’s fractured attitudes to its citizens and the world outside the EU. Cervantes is an appropriate symbol to stand outside the chamber of political power.