It is commonly accepted that the modern European novel begins with Don Quixote. Lionel Trilling went so far as to claim that the entire history of the modern novel could be interpreted as variations on themes set out in Cervantes’s great originating work. And the quality that is usually taken to mark Don Quixote as ‘modern’ is its irony. It is a fiction about fiction. The new sensibility it inaugurated begins in a spirit of mockery, ridiculing the obsolete genre of chivalric romance, insisting on the disconnection between reality and fantasy. As a character observes in The Childhood of Jesus (2013), the first novel in J.M. Coetzee’s trilogy about a precocious orphan named David and his accidental guardian, Simón, the innovation of Don Quixote is to view the world through two sets of eyes: where Quixote sees giants, his loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza, sees only windmills.
Much of the humour in Don Quixote is derived from the premise that Sancho is correct and Quixote is a ‘deluded old man’. This is the interpretation Simón seeks to impress upon David, who is so enchanted by Quixote’s adventures that he memorises them, but who prefers to sees things the other way round. Near the beginning of The Death of Jesus, Simón, exasperated by David’s refusal to read any other book, dismisses Don Quixote as a ‘made-up story … it is an amusing book, it sucks you into its fantasy, but fantasy is not real. Indeed, the message of the book is precisely to warn readers like yourself against being sucked into an unreal world, a world of fantasy.’