ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's nearly 400 years since the death of Spain's most famous writer, Miguel de Cervantes. He who wrote "The Adventures of Don Quixote." Legend has it that he is buried under a convent in downtown Madrid. And today, technicians started using ground-penetrating radar to try to solve this enduring mystery in Spain's literary history. Lauren Frayer brings us the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) I am I Don Quixote, the lord of La Mancha. My destiny calls and I go...
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: "The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha." Before the musical, the ballet, the film, it was a 17th century book, considered the first modern novel, and its creator, Miguel de Cervantes, the Shakespeare of the Spanish-speaking world.
FERNANDO DE PRADO: This novel, everybody immediately recognize as a masterpiece and a new turning point. But money don't came so quickly as the fame.
FRAYER: Historian Fernando de Prado says just like Cervantes' hero Don Quixote, the author had some quixotic adventures of his own. He served in the Spanish Navy. He was kidnapped by pirates and held captive five years.
PRADO: Miguel de Cervantes was a soldier without luck, a man without fortune. He was a very, extremely nice person. But he was poor and he was a handicapped man.
FRAYER: War wounds left him crippled. A year after the complete "Don Quixote" was published, Cervantes died penniless in 1616. But he's believed to have gotten his last dying wish, to be buried inside the Madrid convent of the nuns who helped negotiate his freedom from pirates.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in Spanish)
FRAYER: Nearly 400 years later, that convent still stands with a dozen cloistered nuns inside. This morning, the nuns sang from behind a screen out of public view at a mass in memory of Cervantes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: For all those laid to rest inside this monastery, especially Miguel de Cervantes, the priest said. A small plaque outside says Cervantes is buried here but no one knows precisely where or even if the legend is true. Compare this to the church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where Shakespeare is buried, which gets thousands of tourists each year. Spain wants to do something similar for its own bard. So, it's hired geophysicists to find Cervantes' body once and for all. Luis Avial is using ground-penetrating radar and infrared scans to probe the convent's foundation.
LUIS AVIAL: It's like you go to hospital, no, with a broken leg. The doctor, the first thing you make is an X-ray, no, to see the information of your leg. And this is the same.
FRAYER: Excavations could follow. The team includes Francisco Etxeberria, a forensics expert who helped exhume the body of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda last year. He says Cervantes' injuries in life could help scientists identify him now.
FRANCISCO ETXEBERRIA: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: Cervantes was nearly 70 when he died, and he described himself physically in his own writings, he says. He had a curved nose, a hunchback and only six teeth. And then were his injuries: gunshot wounds to his chest and a crippled left hand, he says. Whatever's left of his bones should show some signs of these injuries. If they find him, the plan is to keep Cervantes' remains inside the convent, respecting his dying wish. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.