Jamie Manrique’s Cervantes Street (Akashic Books) is a picturesque imagining of the great Spanish master’s epic life. Told from the alternating points of view of Miguel de Cervantes himself, a self-assured genius from humble beginnings, and his childhood friend Luis de Lara, a man of great privilege, power, and jealousy, Manrique embellishes a swashbuckling biography to offer a captivating vision of Late Renaissance Spain – the inspiration for the first modern novel of the Western canon: Don Quixote.

As a young man Miguel de Cervantes-Saavedra dreams of becoming a court poet like his idol Garcilaso de la Vega, but his ambitions are frustrated by his family’s reduced circumstances and his Jewish heritage. Luis de Lara has no such obstacles: The son of one of Spain’s most powerful families, Luis is destined for greatness in service to the crown. Despite their disparate stations, however, the two aspiring poets develop a strong friendship built on a shared love of verse and mutual admiration. But, when Miguel’s romantic attentions turn to Luis’ betrothed, the beautiful Mercedes, he incites his friend’s fiery jealousy, and the well-connected Luis enacts a clandestine plan that has the consequence of banishing his newfound rival from the kingdom. What follows is a life of epic proportions for the swaggering Cervantes. A turn in the navy leaves him maimed and easy prey for the Algerian corsair Arnaut Mami. Five years of drudgery, torture, and humiliation in Mami’s prison leads to an eventual return to Spain where Cervantes once again takes up the pen. Luis keeps abreast of his rival’s misfortunes, drawing great joy over the years from his erstwhile friend’s misery, all the while exercising his middling talents in aborted literary pursuits and contending with a distant Mercedes and their only son.

By turns historical and inventive, Manrique expertly depicts a bygone era in ways that resonate with contemporary life. Cervantes’ Spain is a world deeply divided by religion, a place where unpopular beliefs can have the direst of consequences; yet, in its folly, it’s a place of great opportunity as well – a place where a man of humble origins can rise to become a father of modern letters.  Manrique limns this contradiction with humor and sympathy, finding an underlying humanity in even the greatest villains. Mami and de Lara may be despicable in their actions, but it’s impossible to deny the influence they had on the production of Don Quixote, a masterpiece rivaled only by the works of a fellow prodigious scribe of the Late Renaissance, William Shakespeare.

 

Cervantes Street
by Jamie Manrique
Akashic Books
Hardcover, 9781617751264, 320 pp.
September 2012



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  • Michael Craft

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