I don’t think I understand what Don Quixote is about, and I don’t think anybody knows what Don Quixote is about.
—Keith Dewhurst, author of the play Don Quixote (1982)
Miguel de Cervantes concluded The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha in 1605 with a phrase in Italian from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: “Forse altro canterà con miglior plettro” (Perhaps another will sing with a better [guitar] pick). While his book was selling in record numbers, Cervantes turned to short stories and pastoral poetry. In 1614 the pseudonymous Alonzo Fernández de Avellaneda published an unauthorized sequel to Don Quixote, prompting a furioso Cervantes to publish his own second volume of the novel a year later. Attributing its authorship, as he had that of volume 1, to the mythical Arab scholar Cid Hamet Benengeli, Cervantes exacted revenge. In chapter 70, devils battered the presumptuous Fernández’s manuscript with tennis rackets so “that the very insides flew out of it”:
“Away with it,” cried the first devil, “down with it, plunge it to the lowest pit of Hell, where I may never see it more.” “Why is it such sad stuff?” said the other. “Such intolerable stuff,” cried the first devil, “that if I and all the devils in Hell should set their heads together to make it worse, it were past our skill.”
Cervantes contrived in volume 2 to forestall further appropriation by granting Don Quixote a “natural death.” The priest at the knight’s bedside called on a scribe to certify his demise in writing, “lest any other author but Cid Hamet Benengeli should take occasion to raise him from the dead, and presume to write endless histories of his adventures.” But burying Quixote proved as futile as Arthur Conan Doyle’s murder of Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls.
Don Quixote, like Achilles, Odysseus, Faust, and Don Juan, refuses the grave. Novels, dramas, operas, poems, movies, paintings, and sculptures resurrect him and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, in every century. In the twenty-first, it is the turn of Ariel Dorfman and Salman Rushdie. Despite drawing from the same source, the two American-resident exiles have produced very different novels, whose charms might just spare them Cervantes’s flames of eternal damnation.
Notions of authorship, creator, and creatures, as well as of love, folly, and imagination, dominate Rushdie’s and Dorfman’s pages as they did Cervantes’s. Who conceived Quixote and Sancho? The nonexistent Benengeli? Cervantes? Or Pierre Menard, Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional early-twentieth-century scholar who was so obsessed with Cervantes that he set out to reproduce word for word “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of part 1 of Don Quixote and a fragment of the twenty-second chapter.” Borges, in truly Borgesian fashion, delivered a capricious judgment: “The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” Cervantes, through intention or accident, invited not only imitation but absurdity.
The key to Quixote’s and Sancho’s enduring appeal may lie in an observation by Dr. Arthur Brock, the Scottish psychiatrist who treated the World War I poet Wilfred Owen for shell shock at the Craiglockhart War Hospital:
Sancho Panza and his romantic crack-brained master were perhaps less “thought out” by Cervantes than they were direct offsprings from his sub-conscious mind. Like the vivid symbols of dream-life, the creations of genius are really too good to be merely, or even mainly, intellectual products.
In Dorfman’s novel, Cautivos, Quixote springs straight out of Cervantes’s unconscious on October 31, 1580, when the future author “sank to his knees on the beach in Valencia and kissed the ground, that was it, that was the moment chosen for me [Quixote] to emerge from oblivion.”
Cervantes quotes Cid Hamet Benengeli, “For me alone was the great Quixote born, and I alone for him,” whereas Dorfman’s Quixote thinks, “Without Miguel de Cervantes, I was nothing.” Cautivos is the biography of an author by his character. Cervantes has escaped to Valencia from five years of slavery, torture, and humiliation in Algeria, unaware of the fictional being observing him in hope of being written into full existence. Although Cervantes is a wounded hero of Spain’s victory over the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto, Spanish officials greet him with suspicion, interrogation, and further captivity. The interrogators Marín and Garrido and their notary, Carrasco—an “unholy trinity”—lead him to a hovel on the beach to demand proof that he did not cooperate with his Moorish captors. He remains silent before his inquisitors, much to the invisible Quixote’s discomfort.
Marín, calling Cervantes “Miguelito,” dismisses him like a servant. The proud aristocrat rounds on his accusers, unwrapping letters from Christian cautivos (captives) in Algiers that he has promised to deliver to their families. He then relates in fury the story of his imprisonment and escape attempts, concluding, “Did your notary, this Carrasco, write it all down?” Readers of Cervantes will recall that a certain “bachelor,” Samson Carrasco, claimed to Sancho Panza that he and not Cid Hamet Benengeli wrote the first book of Don Quixote, a claim for which Quixote punishes him. Marín and Garrido beg Cervantes’s “pardon for doubting his blood heritage and making lewd, absurd, nasty insinuations.”
The purpose of their questions was to determine his suitability for a mission to North Africa to spy on the Ottoman fleet. Quixote listens, fearing that his author’s life and thus his own will be snuffed out. Cervantes accepts, but his real goal is to see Zahara, the beautiful married Algerian woman he loves, and bring her to Spain. In Algiers, disguised as an Arab, he learns that the sultan’s ships are heading east to face the Persians, information he will take to Spain after seeing Zahara. Their lovemaking inflames Quixote—his first, somewhat shocking, exposure to carnality. Zahara refuses to leave Algiers, and a distraught Cervantes asks, “What can I do without you by my side?” Quixote tells us, “She responded with the one word I had been hoping to hear…‘Write.’” His story, he realizes, will be told. On Cervantes’s return to Spain, though, he is cast into prison in Seville. It is there that he hears the prisoners’ stories and reads them books of chivalry that will one day become the basis of his masterpiece, causing Quixote to reflect, “Only then do I understand that this is the best possible thing in the whole world that could have happened to us.”
Dorfman’s account is more or less faithful to what is known of Cervantes’s life, but the trick of a new narrator for an old story—Pat Barker’s retelling of the Iliad by Briseis in The Silence of the Girls is a magnificent example—lets us imagine the author and his creation in new ways. Dorfman incarnates Quixote out of Cervantes’s idealization of love, betrayals by government agents, and incarceration in the dungeons of Seville.
In Quichotte, Rushdie moves Cervantes’s tale from seventeenth-century Spain to the contemporary United States (pop. 331,883,986). (He provides population figures for the towns his Quixote—here called Quichotte—visits, one of many running jokes, like calling certain roadways and motels “historic.”) Quichotte is a transplanted Indian from Bombay whose name, Smile, is an Americanization of Ismail. Rushdie laces so many allusions and jokes into the novel that “Ismail” may refer to Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” and Ahab’s mad quest for the whale, which parallels Smile’s pursuit of an idealized woman. Or not. As the original Quixote’s lunacy derived from overconsumption of popular chivalric fables, Smile, “on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it.” For Smile, like Peter Sellers (a bogus Indian in more than one film) as Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, television is reality. His Dulcinea is Salma R. (Salma Regina?), a luscious starlet from his native Bombay, a brown Oprah Winfrey hosting a witless daytime reality show in New York, and an opioid addict. His “infatuation which he characterized, quite inaccurately, as love” prompts him, while listening to a recording of Jules Massenet’s opera Don Quichotte, to become Mister—feeling himself unworthy of the title Don—Quichotte, determined to win her through heroic deeds.
His cousin and employer, pharma tycoon Dr. R.K. Smile, arrives in a private jet to fire him from his job as a traveling drug salesman. The meeting takes place in a motel in “Flagstaff, Arizona (pop. 70,320).” Quichotte takes his sudden unemployment as fortuitous, telling his cousin, “I’ve got plenty to do. I’ll just drive.”
His Rocinante is an “old gunmetal grey Chevy Cruze” in which he sets off alone toward New York and Salma R. During a meteor shower near Moorcroft, Wyoming (pop. 1,063), a teenage boy miraculously materializes in the Cruze’s passenger seat. He is Sancho, the son Quichotte has lacked in a long and loveless life:
“My silly little Sancho, my big tall Sancho, my son, my sidekick, my squire! Hutch to my Starsky, Spock to my Kirk, Scully to my Mulder. BJ to my Hawkeye, Robin to my Batman!…”
“Cut it out, ‘Dad’,” the imaginary young man rejoined. “What’s in all this for me?”
Quichotte and Sancho embark on that familiar trope of American myth, the road trip, through a dystopian landscape. That’s just the first chapter. In chapter 2, Rushdie reveals that Quichotte is a fictional character in a novel being written by another Indian émigré from Bombay, who uses the nom de plume Sam DuChamp for his series of third-rate spy novels, called Five Eyes. Resisting the obvious reference to Marcel Duchamp, whose Portrait (Dulcinea) was exhibited in Paris in 1911, Rushdie has DuChamp’s readers “calling him Sam the Sham, like the ‘Wooly Bully’ guy, who drove to his gigs in a Packard hearse.”
The Quichotte book that DuChamp—whom Rushdie calls “Brother” rather than give him a “real” name—is writing is more than a novel within the novel. It is also a parallel story to DuChamp’s own: he and his protagonist share a birthplace, age, race, class, failings, naiveté, immigration status, and quest. DuChamp/Brother speculates, in Rushdie’s fusion of real and fictional, that his and Quichotte’s parents may frequent the same clubs. Brother’s and Quichotte’s stories unfold in alternating chapters, in which Quichotte gradually unhinges his creator. Far from purging his existential anxieties, writing about Quichotte came “close to triggering a flight response” in Brother. From his spy stories, he knew that “you can run but you can’t hide.” Rushdie, the author of both characters, opines, “Maybe writing about Quichotte was a way of running away from that truth.” Or, in Rushdie’s case, toward it—via the madness of men turned into mastodons in New Jersey, portals to other worlds, and, well, the apparent end of the universe. The author as creator can also be destroyer, and Rushdie toys with both.
“Outlining the plot of a Rushdie novel is a futile exercise in a brief review,” wrote the novelist Allan Massie in The Scotsman when Quichotte came out in Britain. The problem is no different in a long review, perhaps because Rushdie confronts the reader with a multiplicity of plots. It’s like a Marx Brothers movie, easier to enjoy than to analyze. Quichotte could be Pynchon on acid, except that Pynchon was on acid. This is the America of Gore Vidal’s comic novel Duluth, in which characters appear, disappear, and reappear as characters in the television series Duluth, written by one Rosemary Klein Kantor, who calls her plagiarism of other works “creation by other means.” Rushdie’s Quichotte lives in “The Age of Anything-Can-Happen,” and pretty much everything does. Sometimes things happen twice, first to Quichotte and then to DuChamp.
Dorfman and Rushdie both faced the prospect of murder by vicious regimes. Dorfman’s criticisms of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet put him at risk of sharing the fate of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, assassinated by Pinochet’s agents in 1976 in the supposed sanctuary of the United States. Rushdie received a death sentence from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in the famous fatwa against The Satanic Verses in 1989. It is little wonder that both were drawn to a tale by a seventeenth-century Spanish political prisoner whose own life was often in jeopardy.
The interplay between author and character—Cervantes and Quixote in Cautivos, Brother and Quichotte in Quichotte, not to mention between Rushdie and Dorfman and their dramatis personae—touches on a theme Georges Simenon treated in Maigret’s Memoirs (1951). Twenty years after publishing Pietr the Latvian, the first of seventy-five Maigret romans policiers, Simenon allowed illustrious Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire his own say. When Maigret meets Simenon, he observes his “hint of a Belgian accent” and questions whether “my investigations as told by him were more convincing—he may even have said more accurate—than as experienced by me.” Simenon rejects Maigret’s charge of gross misrepresentation: “The whole problem is to make something more real than life. Well, I’ve done that! I’ve made you more real than life.” But Maigret has had an effect on Simenon, telling his creator, “Do you know that with the course of time you’ve begun to walk and smoke your pipe and even to speak like your Maigret?”
Rushdie and Dorfman are unlikely to walk and speak like their Quixotes, but each has delved deep into the Knight of La Mancha’s soul to understand and perpetuate his enduring allure. Rushdie’s Quichotte is less mad than the humans-become-mastadons who are as incomprehensible and frightening to their neighbors as Donald Trump’s devotees are to the uninitiated. Dorfman’s cautivo sees his creator, like Maigret sees Simenon, more clearly than Cervantes sees himself. Both novels, like their model, are riddles to be deciphered in myriad ways.
Cervantes, Borges, Dorfman, and Rushdie would undoubtedly concur with Yogi Berra: “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”