Circumstantial Heroes

The picaresque novel (Spanish: picaresca, from pícaro, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a type of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish, but appealing hero, usually of lower social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.

Most picaresque novels incorporate defining characteristics: satire, comedy, sarcasm, acerbic social criticism, first-person narration with an autobiographical ease of telling; an outsider protagonist-seeker on an episodic and often daunting quest for renewal or justice.

The Pickwick Papers (Charles Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Confessions of Felix Krull (Thomas Mann), and Dead Souls (Nikolay Gogol) are classic examples of the genre.

So, too, is Miguel de Cervantes’ epic Don Quijote (Quixote), which parodied the popular books of chivalry then in vogue.

After being dismissed as another picaresque novel of its time, scholars and readers concluded that the book was a lot more than that … probing the vagaries of reality and illusion. Where the visionary man of la Mancha saw giants to be toppled and a lovely damsel in distress, his loyal companion, Sancho Panza, was more pragmatic: the giants were simply windmills and the object of Quijote’s affection was merely a sturdy, lackluster peasant girl.

Despite Sancho Panza’s common sense and no-nonsense approach to their travels and life with his meandering master, we find ourselves rooting for Don Quijote and his impossible dreams.

Perhaps it’s human nature – of civilized people, at least – to cheer for the underdog … but seldom does the victim actually reach heroic proportions.

Sometimes, though, it happens.

In a biblical story, the diminutive David slays a seemingly invincible Goliath, saving the Israelites from the Philistines, who flee the battlefield.

Elsewhere in the media, ever-suffering good girl Jane the Virgin at once mocked the sudsy Spanish telenovelas so beloved by many Latinos and Hispanics … as her tales of woe evolved into the quintessential soap opera. We liked her, loved her, and cried when we believed she lived happily ever as the series concluded following 100 episodes.

Because of her diary, dear, sweet, innocent Anne Frank’s surreptitious life (and death) made her a hero to millions upon millions of school children throughout the years.

In a world dominated by systems, bureaucracies, and belligerent players with politics for the rich, we hunger and thirst for mere mortal heroes … as is the case now with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and all his people, staunchly defending their motherland against a despot intent on annihilating them.

Ironic though it may be, before becoming his country’s president, the Jewish Volodymyr Zelensky had been a comedian who starred in a TV series in which he portrayed Ukraine’s president.

Servant of the People, the satirical series that launched Zelensky’s political career, follows a teacher (Zelensky) who unexpectedly becomes president after a rant against corruption goes viral on social media. The show ran for three seasons and ended when Zelensky decided to run for president of Ukraine in 2019 under the banner of a new political party … also called Servant of the People.

He’s known as president, actor, showman, voice of ‘Paddington’ and a mean pianist, but friends close to Ukraine’s leader say the fighter we see today is the real deal.

Despite the demolition, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that there would be an independent Ukraine “a lot longer than there’s going to be a Vladimir Putin,” as the Russian leader continued his unprovoked invasion of the country. “One way or the other, Ukraine will be there and, at some point, Putin won’t.”

Blinken’s comments came as new satellite images showed widespread destruction across Ukraine.

Whether or not Volodymyr Zelensky is ultimately named Time’s “Person of the Year,” he’s my hero here and now.

I hope that he inspires you, too.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the magazine’s current issue — and subscribe, free of charge — at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/.

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