SALMAN RUSHDIE — QUICHOTTE – 2020
We must, first of all, eliminate what Salman Rushdie is trying to trap us into. The central character in the book is a writer of thrillers who writes under a penname, Marcel DuChamp which is the name of a French artist of long ago in the 20th century who is so famous for his male urinal seen as a work of art, generally shown flat on its back which is at least disorienting. This here thriller writer Marcel DuChamp is originally from Mumbai with quite a few people in his family and Salman Rushdie would like us to believe this Ismail Smile, aka Marcel DuChamp is a personification of Salman Rushdie himself. He heavily insists on the biography that is in many ways similar to his own. If we reduced this novel to this, we would just be unable to understand what this novel stands for, though I don’t think it stands, at least not stand up. It rather kneels on a praying carpet and prays us to believe this is true. But it is not. By principle and essence of literature. Even in a direct autobiography, the person represented in a work of fiction is not the author of the work of fiction but only a character, and this fictional author wants us to believe what he says about himself is true. But it can be just a bunch or a cluster of lies. If we let ourselves be invaded by the idea this fictional author is the real author, then the book would only be his autobiography, and even so, this autobiographical vision of the real author would only be a fictional self-justifying ranting and raving about himself in the most narcissistic way, like all autobiographies are. Literature does not tell the truth about anything but only describes fictional situations and characters, even and especially when it pretends the reverse.
This being eliminated we can now try to understand what this complicated, a lot more than complex, work of fiction is telling us and how important it is for our enjoyment and enlightenment. There is a big Islamic background all the time but it is always perceived by the characters as something that is being betrayed page after page, even, and especially, when the characters protest too much, just like the lady of some popular play. It is always attached to Mumbai that some characters insist on calling Bombay, which is from my point of view, the bombastic way some immigrants have to refer to roots they have lost long ago. Since Bombay does not exist anymore, it is obvious that referring to it is like referring to East Germany, Karl Marx Stadt, and even, why not, Stalingrad as a city that has been Volgograd since 1961. And nostalgia is not a respectable concept here because they respect absolutely nothing of this heritage. They have Briticized or Americanized themselves so much that the only thing Indian in them is the shade of their skin that makes them look like Arabs and be rejected by some drunks as terrorists though they wear no turban and no beard. That’s a good way to show how primitive some Americans are since Muslims do not wear turbans? Sikhs do.
Salman Rushdie intertwines three or four lines of fiction.
First, the real people Ismail Smile and his uncle Dr. R.K. Smile, the CEO of an important pharmaceutical company in the USA that is making a fortune in legit prescription opioids, and a tenfold fortune in clandestine opioids sold under the blanket, in other words, drug dealing. Ismail Smile has also a sister who lives in London where she is a lawyer married to a judge. The brother and the sister had drifted away from each other a long time ago, but the sister’s daughter manipulates her mother’s email box to send a message to her uncle, her mother’s brother suggesting a reconciliation. The sister is in a final phase of some very painful disease and she begs her brother to deliver to her in London a dose of the famous opioid of their common uncle. He does. Reconciliation ensues. And the sister and her husband realize their own dream: to bring the sister’s suffering to an end, and to enable the husband to go with her beyond this gate. The daughter then rejects her own uncle she had attracted into this sordid situation.
Second, the fictional (partly so and partly maybe real) set imagined by Marcel DuChamp aka Ismail Smile. He is a real author (one book is quoted several times, Reverse Rendition) and as such, in his advanced age, he believes he is a re-impersonation of Don Quixote under the derived French-sounding name Quichotte. As such he falls in love with a TV celebrity, an ex-Bollywood and Hollywood celebrity born in Mumbai, and who has now a famous TV talk show where she grills other celebrities with her own questions and some heavily edited questions from the public. She is at least two generations younger than Quichotte is, but who cares about such details. She becomes a client of his uncle and Ismail Smile, aka Marcel Duchamp, aka Quichotte, becomes the delivery boy, which satisfies him since that gives him a reason to get in touch with her. And it is the story of this picaresque trip across the USA to go to New York to deliver the goodies. The woman, Salma (no allusion to Salman Rushdie, the similitude is purely accidental, ah! ah!), goes into an OD first thing in the next morning. She is saved because the drug was delivered with the anti-OD drug necessary to control it for a couple of hours, enough time to be taken to a hospital. She survives but her career is ruined, and she is addicted, so she wants more.
That’s where the third level comes into the picture. Quichotte imagines a son of his, Sancho, who has the materiality Quichotte’s desire to have a son provides this ghost of a person with ghostlike materiality. But this ghost invokes a certain Jeremy Cricket who is here an Italian cricket, Grillo Parlante. This one gives Sancho a real human dimension, and his nose never grew disproportionately. When he is with Quichotte in London, Quichotte decides to go back to his flea hotel but his sister invites Sancho to stay. He will burglarize the lady and run away, becoming a nobody. And now he wants to go back to some city (Beautiful, fake name) where he had come across a girl who he called Beautiful on their way to New York. On the bus, he is helped by a “Blue Fairy” of some sort and he manages to arrive in Beautiful and find Beautiful’s house. But all along he had been losing his materiality and in front of the girl opening the door he has become invisible and his voice is unheard. That’s the end of him.
But back to Quichotte and Salma. In her talk show, she had invited one of these totalitarian apocalyptic self-proclaimed prophets of the end of the world, Evel Cent that uses the obvious dissolving materiality of the cosmos and universe to explain the end is near and he has a gate that will lead to a parallel earth. Quichotte and Salma want to get through this gate but not alone and they force Evel Cent to go first and then they go. Into a room full of very thick fog. And the writer who was, in fact, the real person behind Quichotte disappears from the story along with Quichotte. The notes left behind cannot reveal what they found on the other side. And that turns the whole story into a parable of death, and that, I must say, is like a small little mouse delivered by an enormous mountain pregnant with what should be a monstrous volcano. The end is trite and puny, and it misses the science-fiction dimension it refers to several times. At this moment we know this Ismail Smile has lost all possibility to leave behind a work worth reading for centuries if humanity still has a few centuries. Of course, Evel Cent is nothing but a personification of Elon Musk (note that musk is also a scent of some sorts Ismail Smile alludes to a couple of times as being the real meaning and maybe spelling of Cent). Think of Musk’s dream of sending thousands of frozen fertilized human eggs on a spaceship to Mars and the eggs would be defrosted in time to be born into children when the spaceship is ready to land on Mars, bringing thus a completely new generation of humans on Mars who will within a few years be able to populate and cultivate, etc., Mars.
But the concept of a gate is Biblical, Old Testament even, where death is seen like a gate of light that casts no shadows. I understand that many allusions are made to our modern society of fake everything replaced by substitute or surrogates that have a virtual materiality more than anything real. This virtual world is totally inhuman and has no empathy. It is always one for oneself and against all others, as well as all others against the one who would think differently from them all others. It is not even a caste vision of society on the Hindu model. There is no solidarity of any sort among human beings today, and all their relationships are virtualized into some kind of digital fuzziness. It is a denunciation of the Opioid crisis in the USA. It is also a denunciation of the incapacity of western societies to confront what could be seen as evil, even if in fact it is nothing but events that are of the grossest subhuman nature, just epidemics, pandemics, problems like climate change, that are the natural answers of the universe to the human deregulation of cosmic and universal nature by human beings. It shows so well how lost and wasted this humanity is in front of the universe and the cosmos deciding to go on evolving and expanding, and at the same time eliminating problems that are not produced by its own logic but by the irrespectful actions of one tiny puny minuscule species of biological beings.
But why such an intricate story to say such simple facts that could be dramatized to the utmost tragic ending in ten times less complication and pages. It is so picaresque that in the end, we seem to have been through a derisive and hilarious fable for old teenagers, but not through a serious corrosive satire of our modern human world. These characters will never reach even the lowest step of the road to Buddhist enlightenment. They are all locked up and confined in their respective “tanha” which means “dukkha” in the end and nothing else. And the two Pāli words are definitely reduced here to their English translations — attachment and suffering — which is the grossest betrayal of the real meaning. I guess Buddhism is beyond Salman Rushdie’s understanding.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
SALMAN RUSHDIE — HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES — 1990
This story is by far not for children, at least not only and not too young. It is a fable about the whole world in general and the Indian Ocean world in particular and the systematic split of it or them in two hostile camps in a time (1990) when there was not the slightest idea that humanity could get over that division. The Soviet Union was dissolving and the Eastern European block was falling apart and yet the world was still seen as split in two, and 9/11 was going to perpetuate this dual vision with wars against the camp of darkness by and from the camp of light, wars that might have been slowed down only when the side of light came under the authority of a man of color. As Fidel Castro is supposed to have said, Cuba will be recognized by the USA only when the US President will be black and the Pope South American. He is supposed to have cast the dice of this prediction in the 1970s, in Prehistory in other words.
The reason for the discrepancy we could see in the dissolving of the Soviet Union and yet the survival of the dual vision of the world is that it is not based on that macro-political vision but on a direct local political vision, the Indian subcontinent, and also on the general ideology conveyed by two cultures in this sub-continent, Islam first of all and Hinduism secondly. What’s more, it is an ideological vision that was reinforced by centuries of colonialism and even more centuries of Indian Ocean slavery trade. We have to note here that Admiral Zheng He from China when he traveled far and wide in the Indian Ocean represented a triple vision with the famous trilingual stone tablet brought to Galle at the beginning of the fifteen century: three languages Chinese, Tamil and Iranian; three religions Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.
When the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the English and the French came they all brought the Christian vision that divided the world in two: the Christians versus the others in an undifferentiated whole mixing together “paganism” (what an ugly word), Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and some more even. We must keep in mind that the Christian Trinity is, in fact, one and only one with one voice, one spirit, one word, one God, one everything they may think of, on heaven and one hell, which makes two worlds, one heaven of divine light and one hell of permanent night and darkness. There is no duality in Christianity, on the divine side at least, and there is only an artificial trinity unified in one non-dividable God.
The whole story is thus based on dual oppositions starting with the storyteller Rashid Khalifa and his wife. Haroun Khalifa, their son, is very fast made the second half of the father by the mother Soraya Khalifa falling an easy prey of the next-door neighbor the clerk Sengupta abandoning his own wife. That will cause the breakdown of the storyteller who will lose his storytelling ability. And that will happen when he is engaged in some political campaigning to support one candidate against another. The first meeting goes bad, silent, khattam-shud. The second meeting could have been just as bad if Haroun had not taken over the business of his mute father.
They end up on planet Kahani where the sea of stories is residing and developing. But this planet is cut in two because it is immobile, like our Moon, with one half in constant daylight and the other in constant night, with the wardens of the sea of stories in the daylight half and the enemies of the sea of stories in the night-dark half. This night-dark half is dominated by a certain Khattam-Shud who is double, him and his shadow (that reminds me of the famous Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Genesis 1:1–2), and who imposes the cult of the idol Bezaban, the god without a tongue dedicated to total silence and no speaking. The only possibility of communication they have is some sign language, Abhinaya, the language of gestures borrowed from the classical Indian dance tradition. And it seems it is clandestine, some kind of resistance.
This division is of course representative of the division between Islam (represented in the subcontinent by Pakistan, but also close at hand by Iran and Saudi Arabia) and its Shariah law that admits only one meaning to the Quran and that admits only one systematic behavior that rejects all kinds of pleasures, satisfaction, and communication. At the time of this book, even television was not exactly favored, except as a tool of propaganda. On the other side, it is more an Indian, Hindu vision of the joyful satisfaction of all desires and needs, even the most corporal ones. The book remains discreet about these corporal needs, though Soraya Khalifa and the neighbor Oneeta are quite clear about their needs.
What is interesting is that this division has one stake, the sea of stories, the storytelling practice of the Indian Hindu tradition against the Islamic approach for which there is only one story, the Quran. Of course, this is a negation of the old tradition of the Arabian Nights, that is never alluded to as Arabian, but as the one thousand and one tales, hence more in its Iranian heritage. That is the only moment when the dual world this story refers to is slightly warped since the Iranian and Arabian tradition of the one thousand and one nights, nights mind you, is on the side of the storytelling Hindus. Nothing is ever that simple in the world, especially when you consider the author is a Muslim and the famous Sinbad the Sailor story leads Sinbad across one ocean to many countries that are in fact islands in the Indian Ocean and India itself.
But does this story have a meaning?
Of course, it does. It means that when you divide the world in two there is a good side and a bad side, a side made of light and a side made of night. But this night side of reality is a fake world because it is only made with congealed frozen darkness and it dissolves into water as soon as you bring some light into it. The side of the night can be easily defeated in the best of all ways: transformed into a world of light by providing it with the light of the sun. That’s definitely the result of the experience of 1989 and subsequent years: the dissolution of the Soviet Empire based on a tall tale about communism and absolute equality among everyone: only one face, only one head, only one haircut, only one style of shoes or ties, only one story be it the little red book of Chairman Mao or the Communist Manifesto of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and a few other Walter Ulbricht’s, since equality means identical for these limited minds. And that means that what Salman Rushdie was going through at the time, the death penalty edicted by some imams in Iran and Pakistan, could be defeated and these dark forces of intellectual darkness could be brought to light one day and discovering the sun shines for everyone. That also means that the conflict between India and Pakistan can be thought of as limited in time and one day the twilight zone of Kashmir will be opened to full light.
This optimistic ideology is a real pleasure of course, even if it is slightly simple-minded in its vain division of the world into two blocks, two zones, two worlds, one good and one bad. Nothing is ever like that and that simple. We must keep in mind that black holes are made of antimatter but all that we call matter and the cosmos comes from nothing but a big bang in an enormous black hole of anti-matter. Don’t ask me where this anti-matter comes from. No one knows, particularly not those like Stephen Hawking who advocate the Big Bang Theory.
I am sure young children would enjoy the story if it were told to them, teenagers up to 14 might enjoy reading it. But beyond you have to be a lot more mature and adult to appreciate the real stakes behind the décor of the tale.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
ARCHIVE AMAZON Jacques COULARDEAU “A soul doctor, so to say”
This is a tale for all kinds of public. It sure is for children but to teach them in the most attractive way imaginable what grown-ups will understand at once. Society is divided between the people who want to be happy and the leaders who want to control them into unhappiness because unhappiness makes people controllable. Hence the fight of a child and his father to restore happiness in the world, and happiness comes from stories, tales, sagas, and all other imaginative adventures that help people be free in their minds and then strong enough to impose their freedom in society. In other words, it is a tool to make people strong and satisfied. Of course, one could see an allusion to the Moslem world and the dark forces who try to control the minds of the people in that part of the world. But it is a universal story too because it is not much more different in our own part of the world where politicians are just comptrollers in chief of our spirits and brains and imaginations and creativities for their own selfish interest. Brilliant and to be read by all those who believe there is a possible world beyond the world of the narrow and self-centered and egocentric and bureaucratic interest of the few who use the many to satisfy their greed for power, money, and cannibalistic domination.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
SALMAN RUSHDIE — JOSEPH ANTON
I am rather disappointed with this book. It is an important testimony on extreme terrorism that condemns someone to death for what that someone thinks or writes, or whatever they may express as for ideas or ideologies that contradict those of the terrorists. The book targets Iran and its criminal fundamentalism that called on every single Muslim in the world to kill, for hefty sums of money, a writer who was declared by some religious higher up clerics to be a blasphemous unbeliever. To have the testimony of the victim of this long unbearable and unacceptable situation is absolutely outstanding.
And yet I am disappointed by the book. It is the testimony of a man who had to be protected by the English government against this menace, who was protected by the English police, and yet became a victim of strict limitations of his freedom of movement and freedom of expression under the authority and by the decision of one or two police officers. That protection resembled a loss of freedom not to say secret-underground-home-imprisonment too much. To have that testimony is essential to understand and eventually sympathize or support the author who was the victim of such an unbearable situation.
And yet I am disappointed by the book. There are two essential reasons why I am disappointed.
The first one is that it is by far too long, with by far too many details that are piling up and not building, constructing an argumentation, or simply a structured testimony, in a way it seems to be a pile of sand more than a protective, defensive or vindicating wall. Most of the facts are isolated, without any perspective, mixing personal elements about the author’s wives and his son along with political or police elements without showing any real architecture. At this level, the book does not read easily because we get lost from one dozen pages to the next dozen of pages, at times even from one page to the next, among details that add nothing to the sad tale.
The second reason is that he explains rather well how he got trapped in getting into defensive religious declarations that were going against his main argument about the necessary freedom of artistic expression for an author. It was a mistake since an author is not his characters and he does not have to mix his own religious or non-religious beliefs and those of his characters. That kind of mistake is too often done by many critics, and even many authors, going as far as the caricatural sarcasm from Gustave Flaubert who once declared “Madame Bovary c’est moi.” (“Mrs. Bovary, that’s me,” or “I obviously am Mrs. Bovary”) It was all the more sarcastic since it was plagiarizing Louis XIV’s famous declaration “L’état c’est moi” (“I obviously am the state,” “The state that’s me,” with a strong provincial accent and emphasis on the French “moi” that could mean “me myself and I”). It is understandable that under stress and duress someone, an author, or anyone else can make such a mistake. Unluckily there are too many details that lead to the impression that the author was not only under duress but was actually not clear in his mind about his being his character or not, and when we know his character is the Prophet of the Quran, there is a real problem that has nothing to do with religion but has to do with a loss of touch.
Then the mistake has to be repaired and once again too many details lose the reader into a loose sandy labyrinth of non-obvious procedures that once again pile up more than follow a logical line or plan. Maybe the author did not have a logical line, though it is not what he says then, but it definitely is what we feel and we get lost again. That’s a shame because there are quite a lot of moments when there is a real epiphany and revelation, like the accidental meeting with Margaret Thatcher, when she no longer was Prime Minister. This event is made trivial by the remark about her being a touchy-feely person, meaning that she established physical contact with him, her hand on his forearm and then on his shoulder, which surprises him as a matter of fact, though it could be seen as rather banal in Great Britain.
If the book had been cut by half it would have been a lot more effective and a lot more dynamic. The flow of this river lacks momentum and power on a subject that should inspire the greatest number of people into defending man’s free soul, not only the free expression of writers. Here too I feel slightly betrayed. I do not want to provide the freedom of expression only to writers recognized (by whom?) as such. The freedom of expression is for everyone and no one can or should be freer than anyone else. At the same time, and the book completely neglects this side of things, everyone has the absolute right to be respected in their faith, beliefs, ideas, thinking whether other people identify or agree with these faith, beliefs, ideas, thinking or not. Salman Rushdie never set a line between his writing that does not menace anyone and for example the anti-Semite writing of let’s say Céline that has to be clearly wrapped up in some precautionary introduction to establishing a distance between the work of fiction and Céline’s ideas that were unluckily going that way and have to be rejected. Even worse: the free expression of some openly racist person or group like the KKK in the US has to be rejected because of their ideology. Anyone who is insulted in his race or beliefs must have the right to say so, to sue if they want to, and to be heard as victims by the courts that would deal with the complaint. Some publications publish such anti-Muslim ideas under the cover of freedom of expression of artists with the only aim of making money by selling great numbers of copies that are not clean enough to be respected. There used to be a time when public toilets were built against churches in France. I know one in Bordeaux, except if it was pulled down, and another in Saint Anthème and that one was still standing when I last visited the village.
The book then has a rather dull taste because it does not fulfill its promises, and I thought it was the freedom of expression for everyone.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU