Facts, Fabulism, and Fantasy: Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte
Few authors would attempt a task as daunting as borrowing a seventeenth-century masterpiece Don Quixote from Spanish to English and setting it up on twenty-first-century United States. Given his dexterity with fabulism and experimental fiction, Salman Rushdie accepts the task with aplomb.
Like most Rushdie characters from Mumbai, the protagonist of Rushdie's Quichotte is an Indian immigrant in the US. His itinerant life in his newly adopted country has a reason: he works for a pharmaceutical business, which is a cover for pushing opioids. His ride, comparable to Cervantes's Don's rickety horse Rocinante (or Rozinante), is a Chevy Cruz of bygone years. His Sancho Panza—well, there is one in Quichotte, sort of—is his son who materializes in the passenger seat of the Cruz out of thin air to give his dad a reality check every now and then. For a fifteen-year old, he shows amazing wisdom. Rushdie's Quichotte's self-begotten romance or his Dulcenea del Toboso, on the other hand, is Salma R, also of Indian origin and a hugely popular TV personality. Rich and unattainable, she is the woman Quichotte idolizes. This is where Rushdie makes a significant departure from Cervantes. Cervantes's psychotic knight adores and elevates an illiterate farm girl of La Mancha to a damsel of phenomenal beauty, lady Dulcinea; Rushdie's Quichotte has his eyes on the farthest removed in twenty-first-century United States.
Then, Rushdie's Quichotte is not an exact retelling of Don Quixote; his is based on the French opera set on Cervantes's work. While the French Quichotte authored by Jules Masinet is a loose recapping of its master work predecessor Don Quixote, Rushdie's toggles between both.
Cervantes's job in Don Quixote was a hard one: how to balance fantasy wih fiction. His Don, who believes in wizards, knights, and only virtuous damsels (most of the time he meets only prostitutes), is consumed by fantasy while he inhabits a world that is always real. When the Don realizes that he has been fantasizing foolishly, he dies. No longer young, the Don's death is not all that unexpected. The little possessions he had is already willed to his niece, his housekeeper, and his loyal squire Sancho. Rushdie comments on the Don's end, "The death of Don Quixote felt like the extinction in all of us of a special kind of beautiful foolishness, an innocent grandeur, a thing for which the world has no place, but which the world can call humanity" (281).
More poignant is the end of Massinet's Quichotte. He has been rejected by Dulcinée and dies on his way home, Sancho by his side. Sancho can't stop crying, but in a strange vision Quichotte sees Dulcinée beckoning him to the other world. Rushdie doesn't comment on this event in his Quichotte, but what he says about Cervantes's Don applies well to the ending of Massinet's work.
Rushdie's Quichotte finally meets his Salma R in an opioid transaction encounter; it turns out she too is an inveterate addict. Quichotte brings her to California from New York. His journeys both to and from New York is fraught with pain. On the way to New York, he, a seventy-year-old Indian with a permanent limp in his gait because of a stroke, is subjected to racist attacks. On a Labor Day at Lake Capote, he and his son are accosted by a "wide bodied young white lady in denim dungarees." She wants to know where Quichotte is hiding his turban and beard. When she wants to know what religion Quichotte and Sancho subscribe to, Quichotte gently replies, "It is my good fortune." This provokes someone from the gathering crowd to pipe, "he's is a godless scum," but the irate lady claims Quichotte is most likely a member of ISIS. The ugly encounter ends peacefully when a security man asks Quichotte and Sancho to leave and they oblige.
Finally, Quichotte and Salma gain entry into CentCorp, a guarded place where a secret scientific project is near completion. Its goal is to send people to another dimension and return them back alive though so far the science has failed to yield that result. CentCorp is the brainchild of Evel Cent who appeared in one of Salma R's TV shows and claimed he was able to bring back a dog from the other side of the portal. Now he admits there was no dog; he made it up. Undeterred, Quichotte invites Salma, "'Come on" . . . 'Let's go through.'" Presumably, they do.
What happens to them? Rushdie prefaces the event with two statements that offer an explanation: "WHAT VANISHES WHEN EVERYTHING [author's capitalization] vanishes: not only everything but the memory of everything" and "the book of how everything became nothing cannot be written, just as we cannot write the stories of our own deaths . . .." But in this retelling of the story of Cervantes's Don, the knight, does secure his love, his Dulcinea, though it is in a beyond that no one can imagine.
The point of view of Rushdie's Quichotte is that of an omniscient narrator, thugh this may not be the right way to describe someone who is unmistakably like the author and yes, supremely omniscient. However, it enables him to comment on issues such as the opioid crisis, racism, and many aspects of popular culture. There is another rub, though. Quichotte is in fact, an imagined character of Sam DuChamp, a failed author of espionage fiction, but Sam DuChamp is a pseudonym.
Fact and fantasy separate only by an infinitesimal hair's breadth in the work. But then strict adherence to realism is not Rushdie's purpose in Quichotte; one also realizes that the maze of dreams and inventions does not diminish the reader's interest in the gripping narrative. Indeed, Quichotte is a tale of imagination and dreams, testifying to Rushdie's deft craftsmanship.
Farhad B Idris is Professor of English at Frostburg State University.