Quixote at 400
SALMAN RUSHDIE: We’re gathered here to praise what many people would call the greatest novel ever written: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Knight, Don Quixote of La Mancha). And when there was a poll in Europe last year—I don’t know if Americans were involved—well over a hundred writers were asked to name the greatest works of literature. Don Quixote came first, and poor old Shakespeare had to settle for second and third place. But just remember that the author of Don Quixote and the author of Hamlet and King Lear were born on the same day in the same year. Actually, Don Quixote was published in the same year as the story of that other mad old man, King Lear, so it was a great year for mad old men. There are more jokes in Don Quixote.
There’s a sense in which India can take a little bit of the credit for this great novel. The clue to that is in the use by Cervantes of a narrator, a fictional narrator, an ostensible narrator who is not himself, but in fact a Moorish narrator, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Now, Benengeli is a very interesting figure in the book because in Volume One of Don Quixote, the book is episodic; it’s full of little tales and actually it looks very like The Arabian Nights’ framed narrative. You have the framed narrative of Quixote and Sancho Panza and inside that are set any number of wonderful tales. And to have that told ostensibly by an Arab narrator is, in my view, an obvious homage by Cervantes to the Arab origin of the wonderful tale. Now you have to remember that the Arabs didn’t make it up; the Arabs got it from India. The Arabs had algebra; they can settle for that. But the wonderful tale came from India into Arab culture, from Arab culture to Spain, from Spain into the Quixote, from Don Quixote to Latin America, from Latin America into García Márquez. And so, you see, it’s all India, really.
In part two of Don Quixote—in my view a better book than part one—Cide Hamete Benengeli changes: He becomes a very unreliable narrator; he keeps getting things wrong; he gets things wrong about the story; he gets things wrong about Don Quixote. And Cervantes has fun at his expense, which may be Cervantes’s way of saying, “Well, okay, it’s Arab up to a point, but I wrote this book.” One of the reasons to celebrate this great novel is that it stands as the unifying novel between the literatures of the East and the West: It is the novel into which things poured from the East and out of which things poured to the West. The history of the literature of the world comes out of this single novel. And what better reason to celebrate a book?