Don Quixote at the NYPL

A big crowd – Salman Rushdie said 500 – filled the elegant old Celeste Bartos Forum (a theater, not an event) at the New York Public Library, to hear --. Well, what was on the program was a tribute to the novel Don Quijote (or “Quixote”), first published 400 years ago, but the ladies who struck up conversations with me seemed to think it was about Salman Rushdie, who evidently has quite a distaff following. Rushdie, president of PEN and thus chair of the PEN World Festival: The New York Festival of International Literature, introduced the event with a funny, multi-staged argument attribute the novel’s greatness to India. (You see, Cervantes pretended the real author was an Arab, and used the typical Arab narrative frame or a story within a story – like Sheherezade in Arabian Nights – but the Arabs had learned that device from the Indians, so Don Quijote was really a masterpiece of the great Asian Subcontinent.)

There probably was no one person in the crowd who understood everything going on – the Jacques Brel lyrics (in French, of course) played from a recording or the Ravel lyrics (also French) sung for us with energy and flair by baritone Chris Pedro Trakas, the reading from Chapter 8 (the battle with the windmills) by Spanish actor Javier Cámara (which for us Spanish-speakers was hilarious in Cámara’s vigorous reading). And there were the commentaries by famous authors. Paul Auster’s was the most amusing (a fanciful little tale about the supposed “true” author of the book, concluding that it was neither Cervantes nor the Arab but Alonso Quijano, alias Don Quijote, himself). And Laura Restrepo gave me the most to think about, with her reflection on the madman (Quijote, Hamlet) as prototype of modern man, when all the ancient received truths crumble before new, myth-shattering experience (I suppose she meant the discoveries of distant continents, scientific discoveries and technology).

In the earlier session, Confronting the Worst: Writing and Catastrophe, I was most impressed by Carolin Emcke’s description of the great psychological damage suffered by victims of violence, that “they lose language.” She has reported on and from places of horror, including the killing fields of Colombia and Afghanistan, for her German readers, who (one might expect) know something about the lasting psychological damage of horrors. They – the victims – have never asked her for any material help, such as a ride to the border, or food, or money; what they do ask her for, almost always, is to tell their story. She thinks this is because the horrors they have suffered have caused them to lose trust in humanity, which makes it impossible for them to tell their own stories coherently, and because they may have begun to doubt that what occurred to them was unjust. They need the writer to confirm that the horrors really were horrors, that things are not supposed to be that way. I hope to read her work as soon as it is translated. Svetlana Alexeivich, who spoke in Russian (very ably translated, it seemed to me) about victims of Chernobyl and has also written about Russian casualties in the Afghan war, echoed these thoughts, and also spoke about the unreliability and variability of informants memories and thus the need by the writer to to work and feel to understand the patterns of people's lives.

In contrast, François Bizot seemed to have been obsessively focused on the psychology of only one person, the Cambodian who had beaten and interrogated and frightened him in Cambodia and had gone on to murder thousands of Cambodians -- and concluded, woefully and even despairingly, that his tormentor had been the mirror of himself. An understandable but deeply depressing conclusion that those of whose who have not suffered such trauma are not obliged to share. You can find out more about all these authors, and others at the Festival, by clicking on their names in the Festival program.

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