An egomaniac on the loose in the US and Spain
Thank you, Salman Rushdie, for spurring me on to read Don Quixote (1615) – Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation in particular. Your New Yorker story “The Little King” and the recently published novel Quichotte seduced me by showcasing Atlanta and made an offer (to read and compare Cervantes’ classic to contemporary times) that I could not refuse.
“The Little King” is funny, pointed, and more coherent, I think, than Quichotte. Both works feature the self-named character Quichotte, “a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who had developed an unwholesome, because entirely one-sided, passion for a certain television personality, the beautiful, witty, and adored talk-show host Miss Salma R., whom he had never met….” Quichotte believes in TV as the gospel truth. His cousin and employer Dr. R.K. Smile, a member of “the large and prosperous Indian community of Atlanta,” is in the fentanyl manufacturing and marketing business, and uses Quichotte to transact an opioid sale with said Miss Salma.
Rushdie, who ended his 9 years of teaching at Emory University in 2015, describes a number of Georgia landmarks from Dr. Smile’s private executive jet:
The aircraft was his favorite toy. Sometimes on a still and sunny day (Dr. Smile) took it up from Hartsfield-Jackson just to potter about in the sky for a few hours, over Stone Mountain and Athens, Eatonton, and Milledgeville, or the Chattahoochee and Talladega forests, or along the route of Sherman’s march. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Brer Rabbit, the Tree That Owns Itself, and the War Between the States were all down there, and he was above them, feeling at such moments like a true son of the South, which of course he was not.
Also mentioned are landmarks from the Atlanta Indian community, including the Atlanta Cricket League, the Al-Farooq Masjid mosque on Fourteen Avenue, the Indian newspaper Rajdhani, and the popular tea house Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party. It seems savvy that Rushdie used the vantage point of the Indian-American community from which to imagine a vast corrupt pharmaceutical marketing enterprise implicating the whole American medical system.
Meanwhile Quichotte (“pronounced key-SHOT,” according to Rushdie, alluding to a shot of heroine) embarks on a quest across the country towards New York City where Miss Salma lives, a destabilizing, anxiety-provoking tale of suspense until their fateful arranged meeting in Central Park. Late in Quichotte Rushdie lays out the book’s meaning: “I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all… And by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry, yes” (362).
Which brings us to Don Quixote. Cervantes’ 17th century protagonist is besotted not with TV celebrities, FaceBook, and other digital media, but with tales of chivalry in which knights errant venture out in search of heroic adventures in the name of a mythic Lady on a pedestal. From rumor rather than any firsthand experience, I’d always expected Don Quixote to be a whimsical troubadour goofily poking at windmills with a lance. Yes, there is unrelenting comedy, and my personal favorite is Quixote’s enthusiastic battle with armies that only he sees which are actually herds of sheep. But it surprised me to experience Don Quixote as a brutal maniac. His rigid adherence to the archaic as well as purely fictional idea of knighthood in an attempt to revive a “Golden Age” damages almost everyone he encounters. Take the scene where he imagines, based on nothing, that two men escorting a carriage en route are instead abducting the lady inside the carriage and without hesitation beats them to a pulp.
Don Quixote is not only violent but also obsessed with his greatness, abusive towards his staff (Sancho), only interested in women for his image, and insistent on absolute loyalty and agreement with his distorted imaginings. Early in the first volume Quixote’s village neighbors try to bring him down so that he can do no further damage, and he is finally trapped and carried home in a cage. In Volume II, Quixote escapes on a second quest, and one of the many gags of this complex book is that many characters he encounters now have read volume I and are in on the joke – that the knight is a narcissist who can easily be flattered and tricked into ridiculous pursuits to his own humiliation. Don Quixote is actually a very unsuccessful knight – only in his own mind is he successful – but his pursuits are not benign.
When the Holy Brotherhood police finally catch up with him and issue an arrest warrant, Don Quixote scoffs at the indignity of it. Lesly Fredman reads this passage from Chapter XLV in the following sound clip:
The only way to subdue DQ seems to be to woo him with his own language. It is finally his compassionate neighbor dressing up as a knight (although there are no knights) and accosting this “never sufficiently praised Don Quixote of La Mancha” with the challenge of a duel that finally brings Don Quixote down. In the end, maybe it is Don’s incapability of seeing how he has done anything wrong that makes him the sort of innocent we know him as. He lacks experience, can’t help but be out of step, and has no ability to restrain himself. It is up to everyone else, from the crowds and royal patronages who ridicule him to the angry observers and victims who speak out, to the neighbors worried that his misdeeds will reflect badly on themselves, to do the right thing and get him home and out of the public arena.