American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – A Review

Part II

This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Authors under attack

Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And? 

In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit. 

Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?

Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.

Same pic as in part one of this review because Jeanine Cummins’ agent has ignored my request for a photo. And why not, I’m a nobody and clearly not deserving of courtesy.

Headline news

That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.

In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.

Book club pick

I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a Review

This review is in two parts. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. The second part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Part I

American Dirt is the story of Lydia and Luca, a mother and her eight year old son. They are on the run following the brutal assassination of all their relations, sixteen people, at a family birthday party. Lydia’s husband had been an investigative journalist. The brutal murders follow the publication of Sebastián’s in depth profile of a local Mexican cartel boss and his growing influence. The massacre is supposed to kill the entire family, everyone at the party. But Lydia and Luca, hiding in the loo, are overlooked and escape.

The book follows Lydia and Luca’s terrifying progress as they flee their home city, Acapulco, to make their way north to the United States. The journey is over 2700 km. The cartel equivalent of an All Points Bulletin, complete with Lydia’s image, is shared across Mexico throughout the criminal network and beyond to spies, informers and hangers on, anyone who’ll turn Lydia and Luca in for gain. It’s a terrifying premise made all the more sinister by the fact that Lydia, unaware of his identity, had become friends with the head of the cartel.

Javier, boss of the vile Los Jardineros cartel, had been a frequent visitor to the bookshop Lydia owns and the two share a love of books and poetry. Their kindred platonic bond had grown increasingly intimate and personal over several months. Javier calls Lydia the Queen of his soul, rather than the Queen of his heart (his wife) or of his pants (his mistress). Lydia treats their closeness as an asexual and private personal intimacy based on a shared love of literature.

These two complex and conflicted characters evoke all that is precious about relationships that don’t count as extramarital affairs, yet are profound and meaningful in an extramarital dimension. As Lydia flees she constantly re-examines to horrible effect her latent deceit or not deceit, naivety or trust, truth or lies and how she was so duped or not duped. What did she not see? What did she see? Who was that man? Who was she?

Ignore the fuss and read this book. It will stay with you.

Following the murders Lydia is a perpetual twist of emotional confusion  which gradually resolves into the only emotion she can feel: hate for Javier. She examines her relationship with her murdered husband, their deep love, romance and friendship, all that they shared. Mixed in with the hate and fear, she must hold fast to and protect Luca, all the while travelling under a veil of horror. Lydia must allow Luca his pain and his grief, and yet keep uppermost the urgency and danger of their journey. “If there’s one good thing about terror, Lydia now understands, it’s that it’s more immediate than grief”. No time for sorrow. This must be balanced with trust and Luca’s faith in her. For the most part Cummins achieves this balance and only occasionally does the reader feel that Luca is just a little too good to be true, that his flawless acquiescence to his situation and his mother’s ministerings is real. The tears are too few.

Javier is another matter. Lydia knows him viscerally as do we as the story unfolds. She knows that Javier will never let her go, that he wants to own her in death if not in life. Lydia and the reader are unaware that Lydia and Javier share in loss, until towards the end of the book. Running from Javier and his interlinked network of ghouls to a place of safety is all that matters for Lydia and Luca. That network ranges from hotel receptionists to bus drivers, so evil and ever-present death dog their every moment. They are unable to pause to mourn or grieve or even to fully comprehend the horror of what has and is happening.

Cummins handles this tension deftly whilst keeping the book’s momentum going. Along the way they meet up with two young sisters following different but equally dreadful terrrors. The two girls and Lydia and Luca are cautious, suspicious and reluctant to share their stories. There’s the fear always that the more you share, the more you have at risk, and might lose. As the small group pushes on in the blind hope of new life in El Norte, other migrants some new to the migrant path and some not join them. And yet never is there much sense of comradery. All of them know this is fragile, transitory. They know the chances of reaching safety are slim, that everyone is an enemy, a threat, a risk. So they keep mostly quiet and trudge on, an intense blend of fear and hope pushing them all forwards. And we are there too, with every agonising and possibly futile step.

Read this book!

This is a story everyone should read. American Dirt is a story that takes a wrecking ball to our cosy sense of first-world safety and security. It leaves us bereft and distressed, haunted and overwhelmed. Shock and fear creep over us with every page; a sense of ghastly, guilty relief echoes though our senses as we keep on turning the pages, urgent and desperate to know what happens next. We are guilty because we know it’s not us, but there are lots of others suffering what these migrants suffer. The awfulness of Lydia and Luca’s experience can be kept at arm’s length, but it cannot be kept entirely away from our sense of safety. We read wide-eyed and gorge on this awful story. Yet we are secure and largely protected from the organised lawlessness that is everyday reality in Mexico, Honduras, Guatamala and elsewhere around the world.

This is a story everyone should read, because it hasn’t been told quite like this before. This is a story everyone should read, despite the hostility it provoked when first published. It is so vital a story that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. This is a story everyone should read, because its author binds the reader tight to the characters with every dangerous step of the way. In our guts comes some glimmer of understanding of what these people, the unwilling migrants, go through and the horrors of their experience.

A Country to Call Home

A Country to Call Home – edited by Lucy Popescu

I’m not much in the habit of writing book reviews. There are so many people much better at it and far more committed to it than me. And anyway I am not really sure how to go about it. And I’m lazy too which doesn’t help. Most of the book reviews I read by online bloggers are summaries of the book in question, that they mostly like. When I read those books I mostly don’t like them, so the online-blogging-book-reviewers club is not one I want to join. At least it wasn’t. Having read A Country to Call Home I find it is such a powerful piece of work that I have to share my views. 

This book is an anthology, a collection of pieces about and by young refugees, put together by editor Lucy Popescu. According to the book’s introduction children make up half the world’s refugees. Gloom alert right there, so this wasn’t a book I was desperately keen to read. I was sure it would make me completely miserable, but fortune had other plans: conscience and curiosity slapped hard my emotional cowardice.

As soon as I finished the first couple of pieces I was so glad I picked up the book, even if I had done so with some reluctance. I picked it up with a sigh, and put it down with a sigh, but one of a very different sort. Once I started A Country to Call Home I literally couldn’t put it down, not least because of how the stories, poems and interviews are organised. They showcase a diverse range of voices, ordered so you’re constantly tempted by what is coming next. What comes next is mostly unexpected, which also keeps you hooked. When I did finish this book, I immediately started leafing through to reread my favourite pieces. How did I jump from dutiful to delight in a mere handful of pages?

It was the breadth of the writing, the voices and the balance between anguish and joy, the jolting realities. It was the horror and the threats, as in “Now you tell the truth or you will end the same way” said to a child in Christine Pullein-Thompson’s I Want the Truth. It was the insensitive and lazy renaming of Jamal and Daoud in Miriam Halahmy’s The Memory Box. There are 30 such  contributions in A Country to Call Home ranging from the ones mentioned above through Brian Conaghan’s poem Just Another Someone, to Sita Brahmachari’s Amir and George. This is the longest of the stories and my personal favourite. There are contributions from Michael Morpago and Eoin Colfer, Kit de Waal and Simon Armitage to name but a few. There is also an interview with Judith Kerr, an unreluctant refugee from Nazi Germany, and illustrations by Chris Riddell throughout.

These stories, interviews and poems resonate and will touch different readers in different ways. They are rather like filters through which we can see our own experiences, which is why Moniza Alvi’s poem Exile is especially resonant for me. And in Bali Rai’s the Mermaid, I totally relate to the line: “I am just like the mermaid by the harbour. Stranded far from home. Forever.”

Dealing with such complex and personal experiences in a collection that doesn’t exclude or numb the reader, for whatever reason, takes light touch and care. The weight of the awfulness of the refugees’ horrendous experiences is balanced with hope, and an appreciation that we can hear these voices. We learn to listen, to try to understand and relate to the human stories behind every statistic, every deportation, every internment, every death.

This collection addresses a difficult and emotive subject, but you should read it because it will change you, especially your emotional responses to immigration horrors. It may also help you cope with your own tangled fears and hopes, as you consider the fates of the people in the book and for the scope of what wider awareness of their experiences might achieve. A Country to Call Home adds new dimensions to simplistic sound bite renderings that cloak truly awful human experiences with insensate numbers. All credit to editor Lucy Popescu for a sensitive, inclusive and provocative collection.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin) – A Book Review

Daniel Kehlmann and Ross Benjamin have together created an updated version of the tales of Tyll Ulenspiegel, trickster. There is a long line of retellings of this man’s story. He first appeared in print in a pamphlet published in 1515 which has Tyll born in Brunswick in the 1300s and dying of the plague in 1350.

Since his original appearance this impish man and his tales have been revamped in many contexts. In Kehlmann’s Tyll, Tyll’s life and times have been transposed to the Holy Roman Empire’s Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) one of the most brutal and longest wars in history. Tyll is the magic thread connecting a miscellany of stories and characters, reaching from the late English Reformation and Guy Fawkes, through to the death of King Gustav Adolf of Sweden.

As a young boy Tyll leaves his home village somewhere south of Mölln Schleswig-Holstein, with his friend Nele. For many years the two of them travel the length and breadth of the Holy Roman Empire taking up with vagabonds and minstrels, learning many tricks along the way. Tyll juggles, sings, tightrope walks and dances with Nele shocking their audiences, entertaining and manipulating them and never staying around for very long. As they travel across devastated lands they bear witness to the horror and fragility of life in a world where war defines life and death, and everything in between hobbles along in grim parade. We traverse a world of terrifying primitiveness, despite the trappings of educated religious authorities. It becomes quite clear that fear and how to wield it, is the currency of the times.

Tyll Ulenspiegel (Owl Mirror) is all of us, our glories and our not-so-glories, our ambitions, wants, all of it including our deviousnesses and dishonesties. Kehlmann’s Tyll is part philosopher, part scholar, always moving never certain, never fixed, fluid like the mill stream in which he got his second baptism and nearly drowned as a boy. Kehlmann links Tyll, Nene and multiple other characters to a series of secondary stories that mostly work. Through these vignettes we learn more, too much even, about the Thirty Years War and its destruction of so many lives.

Ross Benjamin’s translation is excellent, capturing the rhythm and nuances of the original German. His English version is lyrical and evokative of the grim reality of times when there is rarely enough to eat or somewhere safe to rest. Roving labourers, be they mercenaries or mill hands, are as much victims of their times as the famers and villagers trying to grub a living surrounded by danger and threat. No one is safe. Disease and superstition are rampant and as Tyll and his various companions move across the landscape, Kehlmann shows us just how deadly even a tiny dose of either can be. Interweaving folklore, myth and religion constantly juxtaposes the most basic questions of life (gas-food-lodging) with our need for spiritual comfort, enlightment and protection. Ignorance and Christianity are as much enemies as friends and the fears of Protestants for and of their Catholic breathren weaves throughout the texts. Like Tyll on his tightrope, they are another reminder of the precariousness of existence both in life and afterwards. Fear of what God and the devil might do to you is constantly balanced with fear of what your fellow man might do to you. This tension runs through the narrative and is evident in most of the digressions into different characters and their stories.

The need to rationalise is with us still, as are the motivations of many of these individuals, from wanting to help and heal, through to wanting power and legacy. There is always a risk that deliberate motivations and rationales will lead to corruption. Destruction and death is obviously a powerful a theme in this book, but neither is constrained to the times of the Thirty Years War. We come to understand that death is just another state or phase of existence. In the seventeenth century that state of light or dark was not necessarily so dreadful. At least not when compared to existing in a world shaped by war, want, disease, loss and futility, spells and relics. Read Tyll  and feel the slippery touch of those times.

XX by Rian Hughes – a Book Review

I don’t generally read a science fiction, so reviewing Rian HughesXX in the context of its genre is impossible for me: I can’t point out clever references or offer witty insights. I wasn’t much looking forward to reading XX because tackling a 977 page first novel isn’t something to undertake lightly, sci fi or not.

Trepidations aside I did really enjoy this book. It helps that technology plays a big part and although there were a few holes, for the most part the technical stuff’s convincing. More significantly this book exploits everything it’s possible to do with digital technology for page layout, composition and printing. Hughes uses typography and exploits the precision of inkjet digital printing to convey the characters’ experiences, often in ways not possible in the pre-digital imaging age. 

The eponymous XX is one of three Digital Memetic Entities, DMEns created online but connected to a wider world through their digital iterations in digital channels. XX’s colleagues are Girl 21 and the 19th Count, both of whom play bigger parts in the story than XX. The DMEns are characters borne of ideas, ideas that drove the last three centuries and they have agency. The DMEns are made tangible by the genius of a computer geek working on AI applications for digital games. Jack and his colleagues are amongst a handful of people able to understand an obscure transmission coming from outer space. The Signal, picked up as sound waves, is actually a huge binary entity. Its digitally defined parameters are referred to as the Grid, wherein numerous lost civilisations and creatures are embedded and transported. The Signal’s connection to a curious crash landing on the dark side of the moon gradually becomes apparent and through the subsequent investigation, we meet Dana an astronaut who becomes intimately entwined with the Grid, its Shepherds and the DMEns. That much I got. I think.

© Damian Cugley Rian Hughes, author of XX, in midflow.

It’s tempting when hefting XX onto your well-muscled lap or sturdy table to assume that the book is overwritten, but this isn’t the case. The writing is sharp, tight, pacy even, but the narrative is almost overwhelmed with creative possibly fictitious support material. Unexpectedly the diversity and volume of evidence for the main premise (still trying to work that one out) actually does help drive the narrative.

The lists, internet references et al provide necessary context for some of the themes addressed. These are many and the most important one isn’t obvious until the very end of the book. Symbols are stories. Words, letters, graphics and glyphs of all kinds, binary and digital, are messengers, possibly sentient beings. Symbols and digital algorithms shape perceptions, facts, ideas, truth or lies, reality. Broadcast datastream signals can provide common voice, or have unique and granular meanings. Examples used in XX range from BBC News websites and newspaper clippings through to Wikipedia entries and extracts from classified meeting transcripts. Unfortunately all voices in the various background stuff sound the same, like Jack, so it’s hard to have the patience to read these sections. Maybe this is ok in a sci-fi novel? 

Excess detail such as the frame by frame analysis of the Daedelus footage images, and numerous coding examples are definitely annoying to read. But they demonstrate that meaning depends on how a description, or symbol, is interpreted and the response to that interpretation, whatever the medium. Meaning is ascribed by the receiver of the data. Ideas are not fixed or immutable.

So we understand that this story is well written and pacy, but is it just too much? Possibly, except as the book proceeds and the end is in sight, the excess background experiences take on more meaning and relevance. The long descriptions can be a drag and undermine the slow moving drama, but at around the last third of the book the pace picks up. What is basically a pedestrian story gussied up in philosophical posturing, then becomes exciting and compelling.

Certainly there are too many digressive rambles and rants to hold many readers’ attention. But XX is part sci-fi, part graphic story and part philosophical treatise. Through the demonstration of the value of recorded history, from pictograms and letters through to data archives, we appreciate the evolution of ideas, their persistence and power. We are reminded that to counter a bad idea you need to have a better one. The rendition of ideas in words, page design, images and type pushes typographic composition beyond anything seen in a first novel, or indeed any other. XX exploits digital prepress and production technologies to amplify the expression of page design and composition. 

Things get much more exciting as XX approaches its conclusion, despite the exhaustion of the preceding breezeblock of pages. The author may be bludgeoning reader with content to give the experience of what the universe is undergoing. The heavy use of typography and layout add another dimension to our ideas of what a novel should look like. It’s wonderful to see technology add such a fabulous new creative dimension to our concept of the book. XX is an extraordinary achievement and quite unprecedented.

Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – A Book Review

It’s rare that a novel, especially a first novel, transports the reader so completely and so persistently into another space. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is set in a large but unspecified Indian city. Young children have started to disappear from a local basti, a slum. The eponymous Djinn Patrol is a small group of children led by nine year old Jai, a little boy who along with his friends lives in the basti. Obsessed with television cop programmes and keen to become a detective, Jai decides to investigate. He co-opts his friend Pari who is much brighter and much more diligent than Jai. Faiz has a job as well as going to school and is convinced that Djinns are to blame for the disappearances.

Jai’s story, and that of his world, is woven into the story of the team’s efforts to track down the killer. They look for clues, interview witnesses and catalogue their evidence. They don’t get very far but in their many journeys, including to the city centre on the purple train line, we are immersed in the world they inhabit. We learn bits of Hindi on the way, like basti and daru, which is some sort of booze. We also learn about Indian food, and about managing day to day living in extreme poverty. Jai, his family and those of his friends and neighbour live the same routines as everyone else: food, transportation, home, family. But they do it without much in the way of cash or mod cons. And they are at the sharp end of most peoples’ prejudices including those of their neighbours.

© Penguin Random House I am only using this image of the book cover to illustrate the review. I promise.

Through her characters, the author deftly reminds us of some basic truths people in general and about modern India in particular. At his job as a tea-shop boy, one Sunday Jai observes “If Pari were to see me now, she would say this is why India will never be world class like America or England. In those countries, it’s illegal to make children work.” There are many such uncomfortable reminders in this book.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line offers an original perspective on modern India, that of a low caste little boy, aspirational and ambitious but easily distracted. He and his friends and family take in stride the country’s casual racism and class divisions, evident pretty much everywhere. We see the aloof disregard the wealthy “hifi” people have for the poor people who serve them. We see the callousness and priviledge, and the complete lack of respect spoilt wealthy people can have for others beyond their social class, beneath their caste. We come to understand that these hifi types simply don’t see them as people. One would like to think the hifi types know better, because they should, but they mostly don’t. Their unfeeling disregard is shocking, anachronistic in people who pride themselves on the advances India has made over the last 70 years. That a mother daren’t ask for time off to searching for her missing child, because she could lose her job is as sobering as it is distressing.

The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, between the hifis behind their high walls and the slum-dwellers with no running water and shared bathhouses is an ugly reminder of how easy it is for people to be blind to the world around them, to simply not notice. That applies not just to broken down buildings and running drains in Jai’s basti, but also to domestic violence, child abuse and kidnapping and corruption, especially in the police and local government. Too easily it can all become quotidien, and those priviledged enough to push for change, immune so they do nothing.

Anappara’s array of characters, savoury and not so savoury, are presented with sympathy and sensitivity. Main characters have back stories to help us understand how they are shaped, showing their multiple sides. Truly evil characters have no shape other than evilness. Anappara’s heroes and antiheroes are vulnerable and inconsistent, and as we learn to get to know them we are encouraged to want to know them more, even the unpleasant ones. Many are uncertain and changeable. Even Jai struggles with self-doubt, at one point telling Pari “we can’t be detectives anymore. What can we track? We done even know the Muslim children’s names”. Divisions between Hindus and Muslims in modern India clearly run deep, even amongst children.

Like India this story is one of contrasts, from the blend of kindness and cruelty of Mental towards his gang of child thieves, through to Jai’s assessment late in the book that “our basti has become famous and the opposite of famous”. The author keeps her various narrators’ voices clearly distinct, from Jai whose nine year old perspective remains that of a child throughout, to the young schoolboy thug, Quarter. He is one of Jai’s suspects but is really not so different from the younger boys he terrorises. But Quarter’s advantages are enough to give him power over other children, as Jai explains: “His father is the pradhan [leader] of our basti and a member of the Hindu Samaj, a shouty party that hates Muslims. We hardly ever see the pradhan anymore because he has bought a hifi flat and only meets hifi people.”

Jai makes many such observations throughout this book and the reader is right there with him. We share Jai’s life and his world: “For safekeeping his father wrapped the ironed clothes in clean but worn bedsheets.” Jai’s father is a press-wallah, anxious that changing times in his neighbourhood will soon make him redundant. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is witty, sensitively observed, a story of hideous crimes and of the ordinariness of innocence. Jai and his friends are aware of their world and its limitations but they are unconcerned. Their world is school, avoiding getting into trouble, exploring and having adventures. In this they are the same as children everywhere. Their difference is that they live in a world where child abduction and kidnapping, murder and police corruption are too readily ignored. But such darkness does not have to be ignored and that it is, should be India’s shame.

Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte – a Review

Years ago I read pretty much all of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels and short stories. Stray words and phrases from his work have stayed with me and might be why reading Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte reminded me of those years. 

There are plenty of references in Quichotte to chew on, from Nabokov, Shakespeare and Homer to US soap operasIt’s a multilayered story blurring various narrators’ identities and the boundaries between parallel and increasingly porous stories.

Quichotte starts off as a retake on Cervantes’ 1605 story of Don Quixote, sometimes considered the world’s first novel. Don Quixote is a man of uncertain mental health who has visions and takes to the road with his squire, Sancho. But Don Quixote’s tale is just a starting point for a more complex story in Quichotte. The reinvented modern Don Quixote is Ismail Smile (I smile, I smile), an erudite old Indian American who lives in his car and motel rooms, and is obsessed with junk television. Highly educated and a little unhinged, Ismail Smile works as a salesman until his cousin at Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc fires him. Ismail Smile now has the opportunity to woo and win the heart of Salma R. a talkshow host celebrated as Oprah 2.0.

Advance warning of this story’s slipperiness, the uncertainty of identity, belonging, reality, comes early in the book. Ismail Smile says: “Perhaps this story is a metamorphosed version of his own?”. He wonders if “the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history”. I don’t know much about Salman Rushdie, but would bet that there’s a lot of him in Quichotte. Most of the characters are Indian with some connection to Bombay, so Quichotte might be an elaborate expression of the author’s identity as man and writer, of reality and fiction’s confused subjectiveness. With this in mind I was tempted to learn more about Salman Rushdie and his achievements, but resisted. I’m reviewing the book after all, not the author.

Salman Rushdie ©Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons

Like the original Don Quixote, or at least the bit of Rushdie’s novel that nods to it, Quichotte is a parody of the nature of chivalry and love. In both stories the hero takes to the road in pursuit of love. The original has a squire called Sancho Panza, and in Quichotte Ismail Smile imagines into being a son called Sancho. But Ismail Smile and Sancho are themselves fictions, creations of a crime novelist whose pen name is Sam du Champs. Author, the writer known as Sam DuChamp, is referred to as Brother by his sister whom he calls Sister. Brother has a Wife, now ex-Wife and Sister is married to a crossdressing man. They call each other Jack and their child Daughter. Ismail also has a sister whom he calls the Human Trampoline, for unconvincing reasons. It’s a reference to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the quintessential roadtrip album. 

Author’s Son has disappeared as Sancho has appeared. Sancho wavers from real to unreal throughout the story until he reaches the end of his personal quest. Author and Son are reunited by a secret agent who goes by many names, one of which is Kyle, one of the Men in Black. This movie is about thwarting alien invasions and preventing the destruction of the planet, which is what appears to happen as the book progresses. The secret agent uses various last names. Oshima, Kagemusha, Mizoguchi and Makioka. The first three are Japanese film directors and Makioka might be from the Makioka Sisters a classic Japanese novel.

Nothing is what it seems as these multiple narratives overlap and converge. As in many Nabokov stories names are signals of intent, hints for how to read the narrative. Anderson Thayer, Salma R.’s assistant and bed buddy, might be named after the American painter Handerson Thayer. He painted lots of women and often gave them angel wings. Author Sam duChamps calls his son Son and Son calls himself Marcel DuChamp. Author’s primary character is alternately Quichotte and Ismail Smile. Fake names abound but only Sancho is uniquely referred to as Sancho (I think). Together with Sancho, Ismail Smile visits a town in New Jersey called Berenger. The name echoes Saunière Berenger the fraudulent nineteenth century priest whose story begat the Da Vinci Code. This lie or truth spawned multiple fictions in print and on screen. Ismail Smile and Sancho may or may not have visited Berenger but if they did, they found humans turned into Mastodons and behaving like idiots. Mastodons look like elephants, the symbol of Republican Party, and Trump supporters follow his lead.

As I started to wonder how much of this evaluation was true or prompted imaginings in my head, I started to feel buried and wonder if Quichotte is deliberately overwritten. This is especially true in the book’s early stages where the style is uncertain, repetitious and riddled with confusing and wearying lists. But it’s surely deliberate, a device to mimic a stranger’s encounters with the unfamiliar, of cultural anxieties. Rushdie hints at this often though I think he gets it wrong with Freddie Mercury. Of Author (Sam du Champs) he says: “Yes, the name on the books veiled his ethnic identity, just as Freddie Mercury veiled the Parsi Indian singer Farrokh Bulsara. This was not because the Queen front man was ashamed of his race but because he did not want to be prejudged, did not want to be ghettoed inside an ethnic-music pigeonhole surrounded by the bars of white attitudes.” Freddie Mercury was never in danger of being pigeonholed. He chose his new persona to step away from his Parsi identity towards a persona that was closer to his own reality: music, lots of wild sex and global possibly even interplanetary adulation.  

But that’s a quibble. Quichotte’s multiple narrators, none of them reliable, provide possible autobiographical expositions, possible documentations of stuff in Rushdie’s head and memory, what moulded him. The Quichotte narrators show us how stories, our own and others, shape us whether we like or can admit it, or not. And the movie and music references are key to that. Sancho’s reference to slavery from Randy Newman’s Sail Away: “sailed away and crossed the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay” is swiftly followed by Disney lines from Pinnochio: “got no strings on me”. When Ismail and Sancho approach New York city Sancho runs lines in his head from Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. They are in New York to find Ismail Smile’s love, not Sancho’s. Real or no?

The choice of film titles reflects the author’s interests, experiences, or perhaps that’s just what he wants us to think. The list is long but pretty much all of the movies referenced involve a journey, spiritual, personal or literal, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s through to the Lord of the Rings. But we are told throughout this book not to trust or believe anything anyone says, as when Sancho says to his father “… you’re maybe someone else entirely” . It’s just another means of layering untruths which may be why the Pinocchio references get stronger and more frequent as the book progresses. The lying puppet aided by Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy becomes a real boy and lives happily ever after. Sancho has a different fate. 

It’s all quite entangled, the nature of creation and existence, the real and the unreal, the television story and the modern American story of opioid abuse, ingrained racism, corporate corruption, deep state manoeuvres and travel in time and space. And throughout there’s the undercurrent of recast identity for nonwhites in the USA, right down to quoting Creedence Clearwater Revival: “those old cotton fields back home”. This band evolved from an earlier group called the Golliwogs. 

As this book progresses, following Ismail Smile and Sancho through the seven valleys (the Seven Valleys is a Persian poem, but the valleys are not the same), it shifts into something between a philosophical treatise and a representation of creative struggle, illustrated by music, television and film references. Sancho reminds us that “Even my birth, my personal origin story, had its roots in fantasy. Is that who I am? A close encounter of the what is it kind? Yeah. I know. Third. Where’s my mother ship?” (Close Encounters).

The musical references suggest subjective multiple perceptions and possibilities, uncertain interpretations, finding voice, who knows. Lyrics  challenge the nature of belief and faith as in “will you still love me tomorrow?” by the Shirelles. In Nabokov’s book Look at the Harlequins! he creates a fictional autobiography to show how fiction reflects numerous realities in the author’s mind. Lies and lots of them tangled up with unreal events and people are what fiction’s all about. Fiction’s not truth. In Quichotte when Salma R. ponders her life, she observes that “a Russian writer had said, the one that preceded our birth, ‘the cradle rocks above an abyss,’ and ‘heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour)’”. In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, he tells us “the cradle rocks above the abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). Rushdie omits Leonard Cohen’s lovely line: “there is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in” opting for Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX when Salma R. is striving to remember her childhood: “I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought”. The next bit says And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

You mightn’t like this book and feel your time’s getting wasted in the early pages. I felt that way, but as the various stories unfolded I found myself wanting it to go on longer. As we approach the end of Quichotte time is indeed wasting. The world around the various narratives melts. Celluloid burning into light when the film reel gets stuck. As the book reaches its conclusion the cartoon and the real expand and contract, and more characters from Pinocchio come into the picture. The Blue Fairy warns Sancho not to pursue his quest then changes her mind when Sancho disagrees. Salvation or redemption?

And so it goes on. It is far beyond me to compress much more into a simple book review, but I am sure that there is a whole story in the selection of film and television and song references in Quichotte from the Beatles to Springsteen. The films dominate and here are a few in the order in which they appear in the book: the World According to Garp, Blazing Saddles, Psycho, Ghostbusters, the Wizard of Oz, the Man with No Name, Silence of the Lambs, The OK Corrall, The Godfather, When Harry Met Sally, Paris Texas, To Catch a Thief, Men in Black, Bonnie & Clyde, Who Killed Roger Rabbit. See if you can find them and let me know which ones I have missed, because even these choices might be shorthand hints for the narratives.

This is all a very long way from Nabokov, Homer and Shakespeare, and that’s why Quichotte is so very well worth the read and brainsweat. The book ends with what might be a touching reference to a long forgotten television soap opera. It’s about a fictitious hospital in Boston nicknamed St Elsewhere. In the final episode a little boy shakes a snow globe and we understand that the stories in the whole of St Elsewhere’s 137 episodes happened in his imagination. Quichotte ends with a similar reference: “That other world, which he now understood to be the one he himself had made, was a miniature universe, perhaps captured under a glass dome — a snow globe”.