You can’t fault Salman Rushdie for lack of literary ambition. His 14th novel, to be published later in 2019, is inspired by what’s been called “the first modern novel”, one that’s cast a long literary shadow for over 400 years.
Rushdie’s Quichotte is billed as a “remake of Don Quixote with an epic love story set in the Age of Anything Can Happen.” The novelist has earlier spoken of his regard for Cervantes’s classic, and indeed, there are echoes of it in his The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Almost from the time Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605, its influence began to spread. This was the long and winding tale of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance who “became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”
Armed with little more than notions of outdated chivalry and genteel romance, accompanied by faithful squire Sancho Panza, he sets out to find “evils to undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate, and offences to rectify”. The outside world is, of course, at odds with the one in Quixote’s imagination and his mishaps and misadventures have become widely known: from confronting windmills he believes to be giants, to attacking a flock of sheep he thinks is a charging army.
It caught the fancy of many, and not just in Spain. In 18th century England, writers such as Henry Fielding, Lawrence Sterne and Tobias Smollett were among those who created works straightforwardly inspired by Cervantes. Scottish author Charlotte Lennox even created a female Quixote in a novel said to have, in turn, inspired Jane Austen when she was writing Mansfield Park.
That was just the start. Moving on from overt homages, writers began to shape Cervantes’s hapless hidalgo to their own ends. Remarkably, Flaubert took the central notion of a character whose mind was muddled by reading and fashioned it into Emma Bovary, his own female Quixote. In the same period, Dostoevsky Christianised the knight errant, turning him into the guileless, saintly Prince Myshkin of The Idiot.
Kafka, Borges, Greene
Why has the influence of “this brave, boisterous saga of the humbled, unconquerable spirit,” as John Updike called it, proved so enduring? Pointing to its mash-up of genres and Byzantine structure, Carlos Fuentes approaches an answer when he calls it a “reflection of our presence in the world as problematic beings in an unending history, whose continuity depends on subjecting reality to the imagination.” Such a “divorce between words and things”, to use Andre Brink’s phrase, has been a motor that drives innumerable versions of the tale.
Its self-referential techniques and ironic inventions ––for example, in the book, Cervantes claimed he was translating the work of Moorish historian Cide Hamete Benengeli – were modern for its time and remain irresistible today. Leonard Trilling has gone so far as to claim that “all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.”
One of the more ingenious variations is a short parable by Kafka – unpublished in his lifetime – in which it’s the portly Sancho Panza who avidly reads chivalric romances, releasing an inner demon named Don Quixote whom he then keeps company on his escapades. Another influential echo is the famous Borges short story in which 20th century French writer Pierre Menard rewrites some chapters of Don Quixote “which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” This is Borges’s manner of pointing out how history and context are inseparable from meaning.
In the recent past, other writers have continued to pour their pre-occupations into Cervantes’s mould. In Monsignor Quixote, one of Graham Greene’s last novels, a naïve priest and self-proclaimed descendant of Cervantes’s original ventures on a road trip through Spain with his Sancho, a Communist former town mayor. Throughout, the two argue and agree over the rival claims of Catholicism and Marxism.
Closer home, in Ryan Lobo’s Mr Iyer Goes to War, a Tamil Brahmin in a home for the dying in Varanasi becomes a “warrior brahmachari”, an incarnation of Bhima, no less, and sets off to vanquish demons with the aid of Bencho, a dom at the ghats. Farcical clashes with politicians, crooks, and others are interspersed with antics during Holi and the Kumbh mela, sprinkled with dialogue pitting India against the West and this life against the hereafter. As Ilan Stavans put it, “the echoes of El Quijote are infinite.”
It’s not that everyone’s enthusiasm for the Man of La Mancha was unreserved. In a series of lectures in Harvard in the early Fifties, Vladimir Nabokov, always a contrarian, called it “bitter and barbarous”, and riddled with “hideous cruelty”. It’s true that Quixote’s tribulations are many, and often merciless. However, Nabokov conceded, “the book lives and will live through the sheer vitality that Cervantes has injected into the main character of a very patchy haphazard tale.”
It’s interesting, then, that there are some who claim that Nabokov’s own Lolita owes a lot to Don Quixote. Humbert is blind to Lolita’s individuality in the manner that the knight-errant recasts Dulcinea into the woman of his dreams, and there are also common motifs of courtly love and its discontents.
To return to Rushdie, the author has said that in preparation for Quichotte he read, among others, “a number of road novels...I also wanted to write about love: damaged love, obsessional love.” Road trips, damaged love: why, that sounds a lot like Lolita. Better not to tilt at windmills, though; one will have to wait for the book to see whether Rushdie gleefully enfolds Nabokov into his own version of Don Quixote.