Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, £20, 416 pp, ISBN: 978-1787331921
The story of Don Quixote never gets old. First published (Book One, that is) in 1605, Cervantes’s novel continually makes the list of the greatest books of all time, being the second most translated after the Bible. In 2002, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters asked a hundred authors across the world to name their choice for “best novel” of all time: Cervantes won in a landslide. Considered by many people to be “the first modern novel”, it is a story of a man’s search for truth. It is also hilariously funny. I was not surprised to learn that it is one of the most requested books by the inmates at Guantánamo.
As if reading the Quixote is not enough, there is also a long list of works that have been created over the centuries in direct homage to it. Most famous are Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, both being intentional retellings of the story. But there are also more indirect, but still consciously influenced, works, like Kafka’s story “The Truth about Sancho Panza” and GK Chesterton’s The Return of Don Quixote, not to mention pretty much everything Milan Kundera ever wrote. There is Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. My own favorite is Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, about a priest in a small town in La Mancha, who claims he is a descendant of the famous knight errant, never mind that all his friends remind him that Don Quixote was a fictional character. Beyond literature, we have Massenet’s opera Don Quichotte and Petipa’s ballet Don Quixote, as well as Telemann’s marvellous Don Quixote Suite.
Salman Rushdie’ s new novel, Quichotte, is only the latest in the four-hundred-year-long history of Quixote spin-offs. Not only influenced by the original, Rushdie makes great use of some of many of the spin-offs. In particular, Massenet’s opera looms large. Other more recent works include the famous American musical The Man from La Mancha and a film by Terry Gilliam, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018). In philosophy, none other than Michel Foucault took on the Quixote in his The Order of Things. The list goes on and on.
Mexican writer Ilan Stavans wrote an entire book, Quixote: The Novel and the World, to chronicle the varied artistic worlds influenced by the work. As one reviewer put it, “Stavan’s book begins with an asteroid and ends in a Japanese convenience store, both named for one of literature’s greatest characters.” It’s not surprising that an asteroid has been named after the hero, but did you know that one of Japan’s largest discount chain stores is called Don Quijote? Charmingly, it is often shortened to “donki”.
So what is it, then, to be a work influenced by Don Quixote? There is an adjective in Spanish, quijotismo, that perfectly captures this idea. In the same way that machismo denotes “being manly”, quijotismo suggests a style of behaviour that is “being like Quixote.” This could mean someone who is merely quixotic, refusing to take as real what the rest of society claims to be the truth; or it can mean a person who will sacrifice everything for the dream of helping others. For a person suffering from a kind of quijotismo, the world ‑ which we try to understand through the stories we tell about it ‑ is broken, as it has been countless times before. The story of the world no longer makes sense. Into this broken world comes a dreamer, who makes up a better story. He refuses to accept the world as it is, because it is not true, and he (or in the case of Madame Bovary “she”) suffers because of it, comically and tragically. The world keeps trying to knock sense into the hero by clobbering him with new, surprising situations and challenges, but he perseveres. He makes a new world, but this world is evanescent. Quixote was not the first, but remains the best example (at least in art) of this kind of dreamer.
In Cervantes’s novel, the hero has famously lost his wits. This is due to his brain drying up from reading too many romances. Chivalric romances were the Dan Brown thrillers and James Bond spy novels of their day, popular but not necessarily thought to be good for the brain. Extremely tall and gangly (like an elongated figure in an El Greco painting, according to Rushdie), the Don sets out with his sidekick, Sancho, a short, chubby peasant who somehow gets bamboozled into accompanying the errant knight on his quest. This odd couple sallies forth tilting at windmills and pursuing the love of the princess, Dulcinea (in reality a homely peasant girl).
In Rushdie’s novel, Don Quixote appears in the guise of an Indian pharmaceuticals salesman of an advanced age. Tall and gaunt, Quichotte spends his days watching a lot of TV. From zombie serials to daytime talk shows; from The Real Housewives of Orange County to those of New Jersey, it is nonstop television – all resulting in a severe softening of his mind. There is also an “Interior Event” (capitalised in the novel) that remains hinted at until the end. It is this mental impairment that explains what is to come. Taking to the road (in his Chevrolet Cruze), with an imaginary son (whom he names Sancho), Quichotte embarks on a quest to win the heart of his princess; a celebrity TV personality and former Bollywood movie star named Salma R.
It gets stranger still. In Cervantes, part way through Book One, we suddenly have the narrative rug pulled out from beneath us when we learn that the hero of the story, Don Quixote, is the literary creation of a certain Moorish writer, Cide Hamete Benengeli. The novel’s narrator explains that he happened upon an interesting-looking Arabic language manuscript at a bookstall in Toledo and decided to have it translated into Spanish. The novel we readers now hold in our hands, we are told, was created from this translation.
Cervantes uses this stunning metafictional device not just to undermine literary truth in the novel but to question the notions of truth and common sense society holds ‑ and, it must be said, absolute truth in general. The device is taken up with gusto in Rushdie’s Quichotte, in which we also learn part-way into the novel that the hero that we had believed to be “real” is actually an imaginary literary character who has been created by the novel’s protagonist, Sam DuChamp.
Jorge Luis Borges admired this early example of experimental writing and returned to the novel Don Quixote over and over again –in stories, essays, and poems. Taking Cervantes’s lead, Borges also experimented in work that engaged in a playful questioning of something Karl Popper called “the myth of the framework”. The idea, better developed by Martin Heidegger, in his Being and Time, and Thomas Kuhn, in his Scientific Revolutions, is that what we see as “the real world” is no more than a shared cultural, linguistic and ideological framework by which we interpret things. This framework informs not only how we interpret experiences, but frames perception itself. Caltech historian Nicolás Wey Gόmez tells the students in his Don Quixote class that this grid of meaning is like the “rules of the world”. And he tells his students that “Cervantes gives us a fiction. But he also always gives us the rules.” And once you have rules, you can break them.
In his novel, Rushdie makes great use of the trope of mirrors (for what else is this thing we call reality but a mirror?). This leads to themes of interpretative lenses, shards of reality and broken glass. This quote below comes early in the novel and sets the tone of what is to come in the pages ahead:
Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world. And inside the broken families are broken people, broken by loss, poverty, maltreatment, failure, age, sickness, pain, and hatred, yet trying in spite of it all to cling to hope and love, and these broken people ‑ we the broken people! ‑ may be the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth, wherever we travel, wherever we land, wherever we remain …
The broken world of America in 2019, says Rushdie, is one of terrible income inequality, of predatory Big Pharma (OxyContin and Fentanyl), of gun culture, of police violence against people of colour. Dead school kids, hurricanes, perpetual war, people going bankrupt because they don’t have healthcare, a population rendered into producers/consumers 24/7. And don’t get him started on the perils of the Internet. And to hear Rushdie tell it, things are even worse back on the sub-continent.
But the Spain of Cervantes time was also broken. Like America, it was an outlier. A declining empire. A place of “haves” and “have nots,” a country that was brutally cruel to those people seen as undesirables: Jews, Moors and peasants. You had an all-powerful monarchy and a church that refused to keep in step with the times. Resolutely medieval, while neighbouring lands were getting Enlightenment philosophy and starting a monetary banking system ‑ Spain even had its own Inquisition (the Roman version, it seems, was not enough) The Don in Cervantes’s novel was a struggling hidalgo (gentleman). Nobility, yes, but lower nobility. Cash-strapped and lacking in skills, he didn’t have a lot of choices.
Cervantes lived a life like few novelists before or after. He fought at the battle of Lepanto, where his left hand was permanently damaged in the fighting. His heroic service that day earned for him several letters of commendation; one being from the commander “his serene highness” Don Juan of Austria himself. Unfortunately, these letters were on his person when he was captured by Barbary pirates and taken hostage to Algiers. His new master, believing him to be a man of great value because of these letters, set an exorbitant ransom, prolonging his captivity to five hopeless years.
Cornell historian María Antonia Garcés wrote a book about Cervantes’s years in captivity, Cervantes in Algiers. Disabled on his release, it must have been hard for him to return home. Things that he once thought as being obvious or natural no longer felt that way, and he must have questioned everything. Had the world changed that much? Or was it only Cervantes who had changed? Garcés demonstrates how the author confronted his experiences by pitting all manner of preconceived notions and narratives against each other in his novel–even calling into question the act ‑through the use of the metafictional devices ‑ of storytelling itself.
Is Don Quixote mad or is the world mad? This is something the readers of the novel have pondered for over four hundred years. One of the most eye-opening techniques that Cervantes uses to highlight the role of narratives in our lives is “interruptions”, the disorienting moment when the story you think you are living is abruptly (and capriciously) replaced by a new one. Rushdie, in his two most recent novels before Quichotte, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) and Golden House (2017), has been focusing on the brokenness of the world. Like Cervantes, he portrays this brokenness by capturing the dislocation of people caught between worlds, often traumatised immigrants watching their framework fracture. History has suggested that when a tipping point has been reached in any society ‑ when the centre can no longer hold ‑ disruptors will appear on the scene. The story we inhabit is interrupted. The danger is that while game-changers can be good they can also be bad, as recent political events are showing.
Both Descartes and Cervantes were interested in the notion of being “bewitched”. In this state of slumber, we do not question “the world”, instead accepting everything as being “reality”. The rules of our problematic world are built into the very language we use to talk about it, trapping us, unless we break out of our own narrative prisons. Interruptions can begin to distance us from the current narrative. We see that at play as Rushdie’s Quichotte is fired and takes to the road to travel an America where he no longer feels he belongs. Faced with racism and anti-immigrant violence, he begins to question not just his place in this new world, but the world itself. The OxyContin epidemic becomes a skin-crawling case study of what is going wrong in our world. After all, Quichotte is an ex-BigPharma salesman ‑ and his beloved Salma is an addict.
Cervantes’s Don Quixote was ultimately about a man who steps out of the matrix. Tilting at windmills, on a quest for a princess, he appears crazy ‑ and he forces us to consider that maybe it is we who are crazy. This is why Don Quixote has remained a hero for four centuries ‑ and to some, like Miguel de Unamuno, he is a Christ figure, come to save us all. The Quixote is ‑ above all ‑ says Ilan Stavans, a quest to heal the world. And Rushdie delivers on this. More than Flaubert and more than Greene, Rushdie has beautifully captured what was so world-changing about the novel of 1612: this quest to right wrongs and fight for the impoverished. A search for healing and wholeness, the quest ends in Rushdie’s novel — not surprisingly ‑ in a love story.
Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film.