The Profusion Effect

Michael Wood

  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
    Cape, 397 pp, £20.00, August, ISBN 978 1 78733 191 4

‘One can feel that there is always a camera left out of the picture,’ Stanley Cavell writes in The World Viewed. He is writing of a literal movie camera, but he suggests a metaphorical reach for the claim too. The missing camera is ‘the one working now’, and its recurring absence makes Cavell feel there is ‘something unsaid’. We could put the currently working camera into the picture, of course, but that would just change the subject, as Cavell remarks. There would still be a camera we can’t see. This thought is clearly relevant to narrative in general, whether reportage or fiction. Who is holding the invisible camera, what hidden authority or confirmation supports the angle of vision and choice of material? Salman Rushdie is, among many other things, a master of the missing camera, endlessly reminding us of what it is doing, and it is a pleasure to see him, in his new novel, working so closely with Cervantes, perhaps greatest of all ancestors in this art.

A lot of Cervantes’s humour is pretty broad, and Nabokov wasn’t entirely wrong to call Don Quixote ‘a cruel and crude old book’. But it is full of surprises, and whatever crudeness it has is usually paired with immense sophistication, especially in the question of hidden cameras. A narrator who pretends to have consulted several prior chronicles of the life of his hero finds his chief source runs out in the middle of a battle. He hands things over to a person he calls ‘the second author’, who miraculously discovers an Arabic manuscript that picks up the story exactly where the first text stopped. The second author insists that he is merely transcribing in Spanish the work that someone else has translated for him, and his favourite running joke, for the rest of the novel, is to remind us how unreliable Arabs are when it comes to telling the truth. This is either a miming of a true story of complicated fictionality, or an interesting set of fictions about the truth.

Or think of this other subtlety threaded into an easy joke about reality. Quixote sees a barber’s basin and decides it is a knight’s helmet with a bit missing. It’s true the barber is wearing the basin on his head because it’s raining, but the narrator leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of the object. Quixote scares the barber, who jumps off his donkey and runs away, leaving the basin behind. Since Quixote and his squire, Sancho, see the object differently (and since basin and helmet have different genders in Spanish), we get this extraordinary phrasing: ‘He told Sancho to pick up the helmet [masculine], and he took it [feminine] in his hands.’[*]

And still on the topic of the basin-helmet, as it comes to be called, when the robbed barber shows up again and seeks to regain his property, all of Quixote’s friends (a priest, another barber and various wandering gentry) decide just for fun to say the thing is definitely a helmet, as Quixote has been claiming all along. The bewildered barber thinks, correctly on one level, that they are all out of their minds, but Cervantes has a stealthier suggestion. Things are what they are, in theory and grammar and ordinary practice. But much of the time, in real life as in Quixote’s imagination, they are whatever they are called – as long as the right people are doing the calling, and reality doesn’t resist the renaming.

The imagination and reality are often at odds, and it may even seem natural to take the difference between thinking of doing something and actually doing it as a sort of paradigm for the contrast. That certainly tidies things up. But in many cases, in relation to many actions, places, conditions, the imagination and reality are accomplices rather than opposites. Attractive realities won’t be real unless they are also imagined, and horrible imaginings turn real every day. This has been one of Rushdie’s major insights since Midnight’s Children, and where Cervantes’s stealthy joke is about mischievous intention and the power of local social practices, Rushdie’s view takes in whole national histories. What is India, for example? What was India at the point of independence and partition?

A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will – except in a dream we all agreed to dream … India, the new myth – a collective fiction in which anything was possible.

Quite imaginary, in spite of all that history. Or because of it.

India haunts Quichotte. The novel is set mainly in America, with three excursions to London, but all the main characters are from Mumbai, which they nostalgically call Bombay. They live relatively (in one case extremely) successful lives in their new worlds, but are all caught up in a double, ongoing loss of their Indian past. They can’t activate their memories in any viable way, because the good times are faint and the bad times were horrible; and the India they left doesn’t exist any more except as a land of mythical calm, where ‘the sea was clean and the night was safe’. It has suffered a ‘thuggish deterioration’, and no longer bears any relation to the realm of real and imaginary possibility evoked in the quotation above.

But then the America and England they arrived at are not the same as they were either, and the characters learn the hard way about the new, or newly licensed, hatred of immigrants. ‘He had not thought of himself as Other,’ we read in respect of one of them, ‘as worthy of disapproval simply by virtue of being who he was … But he was learning for the first time the potentially lethal otherness of the skin.’ This sense of moral and psychological worlds vanishing while names and places seem to stay the same fuels one of the novel’s major threats: the end of the earth as a habitable space, or as a believer in the fantasy (if it is a fantasy) puts it, ‘the crumbling into nothing of the whole of space-time’. This wording is a little overblown, since the same person is planning to sell escape routes into ‘parallel earths’. But the signs of the prelude to the last disintegration produce great lines, like the following declaration: ‘I’m going to start looking out for those people. The ones like me with the end time in their eyes.’

Quichotte opens with a brilliant parody of Cervantes’s first sentence: ‘There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a travelling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers.’ The temporary addresses are a fine revision of Cervantes’s pretending not to remember the name of the place where Quixote lived – literally, he says he doesn’t want to remember. But in spite of this and many other echoes, Quichotte is not all that close to the original Don Quixote in style or mood, and doesn’t seek to be. The leading character chooses his pseudonym because a recording of Massenet’s opera Don Quichotte was his father’s favourite LP, and echoes of the musical Man of La Mancha, with the obligatory ‘impossible dream’, are all over the place.

Cervantes tells us that Don Quixote lost his mind because he read too many romances of chivalry, not all nonsense, as many critics assume, but not models of realism either; yet there are indications, as the novel develops, that Quixote has learned to play at madness, like Hamlet, because it seems to work, because a functioning pretence of knighthood is better than staying at home. Quichotte largely follows the romantic reading of the knight as idealist, whose madness consists of his nobility of spirit and his refusal to believe that the pragmatically possible is an acceptable limit to human behaviour. Rushdie is both mocking and celebrating this posture, and his Quichotte is genuinely ridiculous as well as heroic. He has other sources too, he tells us in his acknowledgments, and both Pinocchio and The Conference of the Birds play a considerable role in the plot. It’s good to see Jiminy Cricket speaking Italian. And we learn from the start that Quichotte’s equivalent of overdosing on chivalric fiction is binge-watching television. When he considers ‘the matter of wooing a great lady’, he says he naturally ponders ‘the classics’. Such as The Dating Game, ABC-TV, 1965.

There are two storylines in Quichotte, located in different layers of fictional reality, although since Rushdie is so good at what we might call the profusion effect, it feels as if there are more than two. Different characters in each are closely described, or allowed to speak for themselves. The first story concerns the title character, legal name Ismail Smile, perhaps originally Ismail Ismail, now a travelling salesman, as we have learned, but formerly a professor of journalism in New York. Pushed into retirement by his employer, a relative also called Smile, he is lucky to have already decided on a late or last career: that of wooer of an American television personality, ‘Indian movie royalty’ transplanted to another continent. He moves slowly across the country from Arizona towards New York, where he must seek reconciliation with his sister before he can proceed to meet his dream. We guess, correctly, that this is not going to end well, but we can’t guess just how it will end, and when we learn, we may have to revise our definition of ‘well’. Quichotte’s adventures take up two thirds of the book, 14 chapters out of 21.

As soon as the first chapter is over, and we have been introduced to our hero and his dream, another voice announces that ‘the author of the preceding narrative … was a New York-based writer of Indian origin.’ This person’s story, which also includes a reconciliation with a sister, takes up the other seven chapters. He is a writer, known, if at all, for eight ‘spy fictions’ written under a pseudonym. His Quichotte story is a late breakthrough, or breakaway. Or a failed attempt at the same. He piles up resemblances between Quichotte’s life and his own, while strenuously denying any serious connection. ‘Granted,’ he writes, or rather someone else writes of his thinking, ‘his creation and he were approximately the same age, they had near identical old roots, uprooted roots … and their parents’ lives paralleled each other, so much so that he … on some days had difficulty remembering which history was his own and which was Quichotte’s.’ He doesn’t watch half as much television as the other old boy, but does that prove his independence? His story, like that of his character, involves a dangerous drug, Fentanyl, supposed to be used only in terminal cases, but particularly profitable when sold to famous people for extreme recreation. And this, to jump back to the other layer, is how Quichotte finally meets his royal star.

*

And who is the author of the fictional author? The short answer is Rushdie, but that is too hazy, collapsing many possible performances into one. Who, for example, is the person who addresses us as ‘kind reader’ and says ‘we migrants’? Who adapts a phrase from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (‘England is another country. They do things differently there’), and thinks Brexit is ‘a wild, nostalgic decision’ about the country’s future? Well, let’s say it is Rushdie, but then it’s only the visible Rushdie, and the one we can’t see (the camera we can’t see) is arranging everything else.

Questions about fiction are everywhere in the book, and this is the deep connection to Cervantes, to the realm of conceptual play, of worries about reality and the imagination, and the reason neither wants to behave in an orderly way. Quichotte revisits Rushdie’s theory of India in another mode. He is describing the seven valleys of a traditional quest. He looks at a large map of the United States, and says: ‘It doesn’t have to be an actual valley … The valley is a metaphor.’ His son asks him, not unreasonably, why in that case they are bothering with a map, and Quichotte says: ‘Every quest takes place both in the sphere of the actual … and in the sphere of the symbolic … We may be after a celestial goal, but we still have to travel along the interstate.’ ‘You lost me there,’ his son replies.

The writer’s spy fiction turns real when the CIA recruits his son, borrowing the plot from one of his books, and as he talks about his work and his life, apart from denying the obvious biographical connections, he says of the television star, ‘Salma was all fiction,’ while the opioid transaction meant that he ‘was a writer who believed in doing his research’. This is an intriguing range: all fiction, pretty much all fact, and large doses of both in between. I think, as Rushdie may be thinking, of an equally dizzying array of options in Don Quixote.

By the time of the action of the second part of book, the first part has been published. Quixote hasn’t read it, but a friend has, and reports rather gleefully on its comic accounts of what was supposed to be heroic. He tells them that ‘some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.’ ‘That’s where the truth of the history comes in,’ Sancho says slyly and Quixote comments: ‘They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness … Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.’ ‘That is true,’ the friend says, ‘but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian.’ Here we have history as hard knocks, which is exactly how one of Rushdie’s characters regards reality when defined by indisputably racist attacks; history as truth, the way things actually were; and an extraordinary claim to know all about the piety and prudence of non-existent historical models for mythical figures.

Faced with a world in which truth seems to be dead or dying, Rushdie like Cervantes raises the stakes, lets the imagination loose as a form of inquiry, and refuses to simplify the question. Truth is not dead but it was never flat or neat, a quick response to packs of lies. It includes lies, and we need to know where they are and what they look like. Rushdie makes great pictures of how fiction can ‘become real’, and of ‘the dizzying union of the real and the imagined’. And I’ve left his real tour de force till last, the fiction about fiction that takes the breath away.

Quichotte has a son, as we have seen. He calls him Sancho, and in many ways this person takes up the role Cervantes assigned to his namesake: he is rude and funny and realistic about the hard world. But Sancho is not a natural son, he is invented. Quichotte wished for him and he arrived: not magical realism, just real magic. Although a little unreliable, as magic often is. ‘I don’t know if I’m even really here, to tell the truth,’ Sancho says, presumably telling the truth. ‘For one thing I’m black and white in a full-colour universe.’ And for the moment, he doesn’t seem visible to anyone except his father. Will he die if his father stops thinking about him? ‘If you get imagined into being, does that mean that after that you can just be?’ If you’re a ‘figment’, as he says, at least it means you can’t get ill. And then a ‘second miracle’ occurs. The phantom no longer looks like a ‘phantom’, he stands forth ‘in high definition, full colour, and wide-screen aspect ratio’. The language of the description is compromised by Quichotte’s television watching, but we can take the event on trust for the moment, and Jiminy Cricket is there with help from another medium.

Rushdie’s Sancho is not an example of the power of fiction to turn fantasy into reality, even within the story, although that is how we have to see him at first. He is an instance of fiction telling truths we can’t get at otherwise. Novels do this all the time, of course, and Quichotte expertly does it again. But it does it strangely, for a strange time. At one point the author of the Quichotte story (and Sancho’s ‘real’ father) is ‘deafened by the echo between the fiction which he had made and the fiction in which he had been made to live’ – the first is a fantasy and the second is a lie. Sancho is not deafened by anything, and because he is not entirely real, he can read reality, and defend it, better than anyone else in the book.

[*] I wouldn’t have known about this piece of semi-secret camerawork if the scholar Martín de Riquer had not pointed out ‘the grammatical subtlety’.