Short Story Review – Antônio Xerxenesky – Seizing Cervantes

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

I’m a guardian of culture—that’s what I hold teachers to be—and if the plans I found out about are real, something needs to be done.

In mid 2009, Amazon, which had been selling the Kindle and various books for about two years, ran into a rights issue with a few of the books they were offering.  Immediately the books were removed from the website and made unavailable for sale and, more disturbingly, were silently deleted from every Kindle owner who had bought a copy.  So, if you had gone to lunch 50 pages into one of these books, when you returned afterward the book was gone – a book you had paid for.  The books?  George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.  Just like that, something you owned became something you did not own.  Just like that, two books concerned with oppression, censorship, deceit and abuse of authority, had vanished.

Which brings me to Antônio Xerxenesky’s Seizing Cervantes.  Xerxenesky rapidly establishes the setting as being in the future, in Britain, and during a time when the “Skeptic Party” had taken control of the government.  From the outset, Xerxenesky’s tone is casual, almost flippant – certainly not concerned.  His narrator, nameless and cheerful, views the Skeptic Party as a great step forward: they don’t hold much truck with religion, they don’t care for fantasy, they don’t care for games.  They also don’t care, it seems, for fiction.  The narrator hears a rumour from a friend, surely untrue, about Don Quixote:

In this new version of Cervantes’s novel, then, things would be inverted. Thus, Sancho Panza, who had always been seen by critics as representing “reason and clearheadedness,” would be the one to convince Alonso Quixano to set off on adventures. In the memorable windmill scene, Sancho would say: “Look over there, Don Quixote, they’re giants!” only to receive a tsk-tsk in response: “They’re no such thing, Sancho, they’re just windmills. If you want, I can trace the trajectory of each blade, calculate the equation of their motion. Would you like me to? And my name isn’t Quixote, it’s Alonso Quixano.” Poor Sancho, yearning for adventures, frustrated like a woman with an impotent husband. According to the friend who cracked the joke, the government’s goal in making this substitution would be to trim Cervantes’s nine-hundred-page novel, making it far more palatable to high-school students, forced from the age of five by their parents to take medicine to treat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders.

He dismisses it as a foolish fancy, but then he discovers the briefcase of a government official at a cafe:

…I came across plans for what was called “progressive literary alteration.” To my astonishment, there was a subchapter titled “Don Quixote,” which might very well have been called “Seizing Cervantes.” The plan involved gradually rewriting the novel (all of the available editions were virtual) over the years, so that no one would notice and collective memories would forget the details. Implausible? That’s what I thought, at first, but then I remembered how rare it was to find paper editions in the UK…

The central conceit of Seizing Cervantes becomes clear.  Effectively, the story is an extrapolation of the increasing importance of digital items over their physical counterparts.  Without wanting to sound too grand, today’s “modern world” has seen a shift away from physical objects to digital in such a way that our understanding of possession and ownership have shifted, perhaps irrevocably, and perhaps for the bad and perhaps for the good.  I can, legally, purchase a purely digital copy of a music album, a film, a television programme, a video game.  I can, if I wish to infringe copyright, acquire the same music album, film, television programme or video game for free.  Both options are a few clicks away.  Both are easy to complete.  On Youtube, for example, you might search for a music clip, and the first hit in the search is a copyright infringing copy, and the second hit a legally viewable copy.  Or it could be the other way around, or any number of other permutations (most searches come up with hundreds, if not thousands of hits).

My point with all this is that the concept of ownership has shifted, but so too has the medium for delivery.  If I, say, wish to play an early version of World of Warcraft instead of the current, I cannot.  Similarly, if, say, a book I have purchased on Amazon Kindle has an update I must update – the choice for me has been removed.  I must remain current and corrected and the same as everyone else who owns a copy of whatever digital item it happens to be.  On the other hand, if I had bought an Inverted Jenny stamp in 1918, a physical item which cannot be modified without my consent after its purchase, I would now own a stamp worth almost a million dollars.  Would I want a “seamless”, “integrated” update to the latest version?  Of course not!

Xerxenesky’s story is, in effect, an argument against the mutability of digital possessions, and how they aren’t really ours, even after we “own” them.  As the story progresses the narrator learns of the plot – ideologically based, soundly argued, reasonably stated and completely plausible in execution, but horrible, evil and wrong – to gradually change the text of Don Quixote from what it was, to something more aligned with the philosophy of the Skeptic Party.  If the only copies of a novel were digital, and these copies could be silently modified at will, then who would notice as sentences slowly changed and characters shift from this to that?  The game of Chinese whispers works even when people know they are playing it – and works better when they don’t.  It’s no accident that, as Xerxenesky writes,

The government continued to use this medium because paper had become much more secure than digitized text. It wasn’t exposed on the Web, so if there were some emergency, some breach of confidentiality, copies were simply burned. Printed texts are infinitely more difficult to share.

For all that, Seizing Cervantes is not painted as a doom and gloom story. The narrator, as mentioned above, is casual and cheerful and, though he finds the government’s plans reprehensible, he retains his amiable mien.  This helps the impact of the story, which is easily (and obviously) explicable in today’s terminology and technological situation.  Xerxenesky avoids harranging the reader and instead chooses to charm them, slipping in jokes, allusions and clever examples of what this brave new digital world could offer, as shown in the description below of a computer program designed to analyse literary texts:

This excerpt was proof, the computer program argued, that Ulysses did not tell about a Jew wandering around Dublin, reconstructing Homer’s odyssey, but was actually a novel about a deadly virus known as metempsychosis that affected people’s consciousness, wiping out their forms of communication, preventing them from using commas or periods or putting together a coherent thought. Ulysses should therefore be considered one of the most creative works of twentieth-century science fiction, along with Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

This is clever, and fun, and it assists in taking away a lot of the sting of the story’s message.  Indeed, Xerxenesky’s general tone helps avoid the problem of becoming a strident “issues” story – a surefire way to become irrelevant, unread and unnecessary.

Seizing Cervantes tackles a very serious problem by placing it in an unserious situation – the far away future, and exaggerated for effect.  It’s a great technique, and one that science fiction writers have used for decades to help draw attention to current day issues.  The story reminds one of Stanisław Lem’s writing in its tone, and humour, and intellect.  In short, there’s a lot here to like, both from a concerned political nature, but also from a literary standpoint.  If you ever wished to persuade a friend as to the problems of the “digital age” but weren’t sure how to – here’s your story.  If you ever wanted to introduce your friend to an accessible, entertaining and intellectually stimulating Brazilian writer, well – here’s your story.

Author Antônio Xerxenesky
Title Seizing Cervantes
Translator Kim M Hastings
Nationality Brazilian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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