THE QUEST WAS QUIXOTIC and the outcome Cervantine. I had gone as a kind of literary pilgrim to the Convent of the Discalced Trinitarians in Madrid, the final resting place of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the 17th-century Spanish author of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. My jarring encounter with a lay groundskeeper left me to contemplate the value of an author’s mortal remains to readers devoted to his works of fiction. The tension between the corpse of the author and his corpus of writings has played out publicly over the last year, dovetailing with the forensic exhumation of Cervantes’s grave in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of his death this spring. It is, tragicomically, at once an act of violence against and greatest surety of his literary legacy.
Despite the certainty with which Cervantes’s final resting place has always been known, last year’s exhumation was only the most recent investigation into Cervantes’s burial place. It is that renewed interest that has raised a whole host of other questions about authors, their bodies, their bodies in churches, and what really remains after an author is dead and buried. And unburied.
In April 2015, while living and teaching in Madrid, I called the church offices at the convent to see if I could arrange for myself and some students to visit the crypt as a way to kick off a discussion about the role that literature plays in the way that a modern nation imagines its heritage. I was told by the woman who answered the phone that although they were not set up for tourism, that I was welcome to visit the site — the church in the convent and its crypt — in the half hour before Mass any morning of the week, and so I went alone as a dry run the week before I planned to visit with my students. I entered the chapel when the groundskeeper opened it at nine a.m. and spent some time examining the religious art there. The 16th-century representations of saints and martyrs, heavily gilded and thick with blood, were strongly influenced by the new materials and aesthetics brought back from Spain’s then-new possessions in the New World. To the left of the altar, I could also see the feet of the priests as they donned their vestments behind a screen: the sacristy, I assumed. I wandered into a side room to the right of the chapel, the room with the trap door that leads down into the crypt.
Standing a story above the mortal remains of the man who imagined one of literature’s best-known figures into being, my reverie was suddenly interrupted by the reappearance of the groundskeeper.
“You can’t be in here. What are you doing?” she demanded, walking toward me until my back was against the wall.
“I’m not doing anything,” I replied.
“There’s no such thing as nothing,” she countered. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m not doing anything,” I insisted. “I was just looking.”
She took another approach to get me to admit something — anything. I don’t know what the right-wrong answer would have been: “You can’t be in here,” she said again. “The minute I wasn’t looking, you opened this door and came in,” she accused.
“No, señora,” I said. “The door was open. I’m sorry — I didn’t know I couldn’t come in, but the door was already open.”
“No,” she said. “I never leave this door open. It is always closed. Like this.”
She demonstrated closing the door. The hinges and the 16th-century wooden frame and panel creaked loudly enough that I have to imagine that if I had really opened the thing, she would have heard and come running, rather than simply finding me there at her leisure.
“Please forgive me,” I said. “Perdóneme, but the door was open and I didn’t know I couldn’t go in.”
“For this there can be no forgiveness!” she said, staring me down. No hay perdón.
She shouted a few more things at me, along the lines that I had committed an unbelievable, unprecedented, unforgivable transgression, and that I had to leave the church immediately. I myself am not a Catholic, but I know enough to know that no hay perdón is not how it is supposed to work. She escorted me to the door and ejected me out onto the street, in the Madrid neighborhood known as barrio de las letras — literally “the literature neighborhood,” or “belles-lettres-ville,” if you will — home to the Royal Academies of Language and History, where all the streets bear the names of writers, thinkers, scholars: the keepers of the Spanish language and its literary heritage.
If the outsized impact of Don Quixote on every work of fiction, every writer, and every reader that followed it were distilled into one single factor, it would be its metafiction: Don Quixote is a novel about novels. Not only is its protagonist spurred into madness and action after reading too many chivalric romances, but all of the action also takes place as a fiction within a fiction. We modern readers pull out the book and see the words Miguel and Cervantes on the front cover where we expect to find the name of the author. But when we open the cover and read the first few pages, we meet a narrator, a literary persona coincidentally also named Miguel de Cervantes, who goes to great pains to tell us that he is not the author of the book, but rather, transcribing an earlier story and simply adding a prologue: “But though I seem to be the father, I am the stepfather of Don Quixote.” We realize the significance of this remark when the narrator reemerges at the beginning of chapter nine to tell us that he has run out of manuscript to transcribe and goes out for a walk in the city of Toledo; there he fortuitously meets a rag merchant who happens to have a book “written in characters I knew to be Arabic” and which, upon having it read to him, he found that “it said: History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab Historian.” Cervantes the author wishes to make sure that Cervantes the narrator gives full credit to Cide Hamete, the true author of the life of Quixote. By the end of the novel — after the windmills and the island adventures and the chain gang and misbegotten besotting with Dulcinea del Toboso — after all of the literary touchstones we recognize, after all of that, when Don Quixote realizes that he is not a knight but rather the book-mad civilian Alonso Quijano and dies, sane but broken, it is Cide Hamete who is given the valedictory flourish: “For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; he knew how to act and I to write.” This is not to say that Cervantes the man took any less credit than he deserved for authorship of the novel, only that he recognized that it was his literary characters and not his own character that mattered. Even though his name is attached to the book’s narrator, Cervantes goes to great lengths to tell us that his body does not matter. Even in a society in which books were censored, banned, indexed, and burned, Cervantes wrote with the conviction that his words would not go the way of his bones.
In a twist of fate so coincidental that it can only exist in reality — so implausible and contrived would it be in a work of fiction — Cervantes died on the same date — April 23 — as a fellow writer whose impact runs likewise so deep that it changed the course of the very language in which he wrote: William Shakespeare. Between the two of them there have been a lot of exhumations in these last few years: Richard III, the historical villain of Shakespeare’s eponymous play, was found under a parking lot in Leicester; Cervantes’s body, along with dozens of others, was pulled out of its crypt in Madrid; and most recently, there’s noise about opening up Shakespeare’s tomb just to make sure that his skull is still there.
Despite their similarities, the afterlives of Cervantes and Shakespeare mean two different things. Perhaps more than any other author and his fictional creation, readers tend to conflate Cervantes and Quixote in casual speech, saying the name of one when the other was intended. Yet where Shakespeare’s characters are equally vivid and have become equally a part of modern lexicon and culture, one would be hard pressed to utter, say, Hamlet, or Lear, or Pericles when referring to Shakespeare himself. Cervantes invited the confusion, however, and his readers run with it, conflating not only author and narrator but also author and protagonist. In other words, despite being coetaneous and despite their equally outsized impacts on modern literature and culture, Miguel de Cervantes is not William Shakespeare. But nor is he Richard III. While Richard III and Miguel de Cervantes were both men who became literary personae, the relationship between each man and his eponymous fictional character is quite different. And where the historical Richard III’s death was ignominious, in the fog of war, and at the hands of his enemies, Cervantes died in his home in Madrid and was buried where he wished and by members of a religious order who had saved his life once already before they oversaw its end.
Cervantes’s ties to the barefoot nuns ran deeper than the proximity of his home to their convent. A younger son in a society that still observed the laws of primogeniture, he set out to make his living as a soldier. The warrior poet joined up with a messy military alliance loyal to Spain’s King Felipe II and fought in a complex series of battles against Ottoman forces that ranged across the Mediterranean, all of which would filter into the background of Don Quixote. At the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Cervantes lost his left hand and forearm and earned himself the nickname “el manco de Lepanto.” (It’s a less sonorous epithet in English translation: The guy who came back from Lepanto with only one arm.) On a treacherous 1575 voyage back to Spain he was taken captive and imprisoned in Algiers for five years until the Discalced Trinitarian Sisters managed to raise his ransom and redeem him from captivity; his burial in 1616 reenacted his home-going.
Almost since his interment there, Cervantes has, in more and less literal ways, haunted the convent. Beginning in July 1784 and continuing through the fall 1785, the nuns reported hearing the ghosts of people buried in crypt wandering around the convent nightly. The Mother Superior called for the superintendent of police, who, in turn, called for some architects to inspect the building. The inspectors’ conclusions, detailed in a report entitled What Has Been Learned About the Subterranean Noises Heard In and Around the Convent of the Trinitarians, are a disappointment equally to fans of the paranormal and to romantic readers who might have been charmed by the notion of a novelist’s specter stalking the halls of the cloister beneath which he had chosen to be interred: water leaking from a badly sealed well that dated back to before the construction of the convent was pooling at the building’s foundation and causing the whooshing, clunking, and creaking that the nuns heard at night.
In 1870, the minor noble Mariano Roca, the Marquis of Molins, was tasked by the Royal Academy of History to ascertain whether Cervantes was actually buried where everyone thought he was buried. The marquis used as a starting point a note in the record-book of Cervantes’s home parish: “On the 23rd of April of 1616, Miguel Cervantes Saavedra, husband of doña Catalina Salazar, died [in his home] on Leon Street. He was given last rites by Father Francisco López and asked to be interred in the [convent of the] Discalced Trinitarians.” However, he was not able to determine into which specific niche or grave the author’s remains had been placed, and concluded: “The whole convent is his tomb […] and for my part, I confess that it is enough for me to know that they are there.” The report is a charming account of the marquis’s process of archival research, a social register of the personalities in play in writing the official history of Madrid and of Spain, a portrait of many of the nuns living in the convent at the time, and a vivid snapshot of the capital city on the very eve of the First Spanish Republic. It is a fascinating document of the social history of a world about to vanish, but it is less an intervention in the life and death of Cervantes.
In a similar pursuit of answers, this past year forensic archaeologists set out to investigate the convent and to identify the specific location within it of Cervantes’s body; they did not stop with archival research but instead disinterred the bodies buried there. The initial funding for the research was paid for by the municipal government of Madrid with the aim of increasing literary tourism. But after the inevitable discovery of a coffin with the initials “M” and “C” formed out of nails hammered into the end of the box and the one-armed skeleton of a man in his late 60s inside, the then–newly elected mayor Manuela Carmena announced that the city had no intention of turning the site into a tourist attraction. The announcements since then have been mixed and changing: yes, it would be open to the public for visits; no, it would only be possible to visit the exterior of the convent on Cervantes-themed, city-sponsored tours that would highlight the plaque dedicated to the author on the side of the building. It is a delicate balancing act: the convent is still the active home of a community of octogenarian nuns and they are cloistered, cut off from the world by theological design. But at the same time, and despite the death of the author, the place is a touchstone for secular readers. Ironically, by proposing to keep people away from the body of the author as a matter of policy, the city of Madrid and the groundskeeper of the convent reinforce his body of work as the central site of his legacy. It is not a bad tribute to Cervantes to insist that his memory inheres in his books and not in the crypt. But then the question remains: Why dig up the bones when the body is not what matters? Why disturb human remains when the literary faithful will never be allowed to pay them obeisance?
In between the publication of the first and second parts of Don Quixote in 1605 and 1615, respectively, an author known by the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda tried his hand at Quixote fan fiction, writing his own adventures of the ingenious gentleman. It was a real-life turn of literary events that so infuriated the flesh-and-blood Cervantes that he was motivated to kill off the character at the end of the second part, lest Don Quixote be co-opted again. In Cide Hamete’s final discourse in the second part of the novel (as recounted, always, by the fictional narrator named Cervantes) he reasserts the ostensible truth of his version and condemns the author of the false one: “Warn him, if you ever happen to meet him, to let the weary and crumbling bones of Don Quixote rest in the grave, and not attempt, contrary to all the statutes of death, to carry them off to Castilla la Vieja, removing him from the tomb where he really and truly lies.” The stepfather of the book uses the concrete metaphor of Don Quixote’s corpse to decry the real-world co-opting of his fictional life; but in light of the disruption of Cervantes’s own bones in the convent this year, this warning seems a prescient reach beyond the grave and the confines of the novel. It is one more new way in which Don Quixote and its afterlife — and not Cervantes, its author — straddle a gulf between fiction and reality that is never so wide as readers might like it to be.
A few weeks after being expelled from the convent, I was back in the barrio de las letras to buy a gift for a friend; I skirted nervously around the back side of the building, not wanting to risk running into the groundskeeper lest she recognize me and pick up her excoriation where she left it off. Skittish though I was, I walked slowly enough past the building to overhear a local telling two visiting friends, in castizo-accented English: “We have a saying here: Spain is a terrible stepmother. It means that people don’t care. If this were England and this were Shakespeare, there would be a museum, and shops, and people would come; but as you can see, we have nothing but a plaque.” The city tourism board has come around in the end, and since the April quadricentenary it has become possible to sign up for Friday or Saturday morning tours of the crypt. But paradoxically, it is an unsatisfying outcome. To be left, in the end, as the native son of a lousy stepmother might have been the most fitting tribute to the man and was most certainly the very best reading of his work.