Set in Russia in the early 20th century, The Little Gaucho Who Loved Don Quixote by Russian writer Margarita Meklina describes the life and time of Naftali and his family, who live in a Jewish ghetto. Like his own family, his community live at subsistence level, and are subjugated and subjected to racist attacks by the Russians. The protagonist Naftali sums it up wisely:
‘Naftali felt a different kind of cold – like when he passed by some neighbours on the street, for instance, who wouldn’t even look at him and only muttered things under his breath.’
Naftali is a precocious child, who enjoys reading and learning. This is encouraged by his loving and supportive parents. Reading is transformative: it transports him out of his a poor and limiting existence. His father manages to procure for him Part 2 of the novel Don Quixote by Cervantes which envelopes his imagination, so much so that when a mysterious stranger and his elegant wife arrive at the village, Naftali is convinced that he has encountered Don Quixote and Dulcinea in person. In fact, the stranger (whose real name is Baron Maurice de Hirsch) is a philanthropist who supplies the means for the local Jewish community re-settle in Argentina, away from the continual anti-Semitic attacks. Thus, the second part of the novel sees Naftali and his family journeying to Argentina to settle there.
The novel is laced throughout with storytelling and adventure. Anecdote and storytelling are seen by the characters as a means to uplift, to educate and to reflect life. The stories are rich in imagination, instruction, humour and empathy.
The Gaucho Who Loved Don Quixote is written by Meklina as a children’s book, but in reality it can be enjoyed by anyone with a youthful and fluid mind. Her prose is light and accessible. She doesn’t shield the reader from unsavoury events: rather she tackles them with an honesty that somehow reassures.
I experienced the novel as a cross between Paoulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, which deals with a journey and transformation, and Fiddler on the Roof with its comedic pathos. It is worth noting that the illustrations in pencil by Fabio Perla are tiny and delicate; they lend themselves perfectly to the sweetness of the novel. As the protagonist Naftali is transported and healed through reading, navigating his way through joys, sorrows and tragedy, I too was transported with him throughout this beautiful novel.
(c) Suzy O’ Mullane
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