You hear a story so engrossing, you end up living inside it. Oedipus attempted to flee this fate, only to stumble into it. Don Quixote, whose library expanded to encompass his world, perhaps found a more pleasurable narrative to inhabit. Max Yeh, in his turn, has spent a few years living inside Quixote’s narrative, long enough to compose the elegant forgery Stolen Oranges.
It is not exactly a historical fiction, if we associate with the genre those imaginative narratives designed to bring to life a world learned and preserved through the historian’s craft. It rather plays in the space of the fiction of history, reminding us that the historian too only weaves a textual web for us to inhabit. Like Oedipus and Don Quixote, each of us has learned, fabricated, and fled our way into those collective fictions we call history and biography, and so the most inescapable narratives are those that stage this transgression. One hears a story then lives inside it; one tells a story whose objects drop from that speech bubble into the world around us. Gerard Genette called this rhetorical device narrative metalepsis—perhaps it’s comforting to put a name to it, or discomforting to realize we live by means of a rhetorical figure.
Technically, the far more weighty, historical (in that good traditional sense) character, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is the focus of Yeh’s novel, along with the contemporaneous Chinese emperor Wanli. But the navel from which this extra-historical speculation is born is not a detail from Cervantes’ biography, in any classical sense of the word. In the introduction to the second part of Don Quixote, Cervantes (now a character in his own novel) recounts a visit from a Chinese messenger inviting him to be rector of a college dedicated to learning Spanish by reading the first part of his novel. The narrator-historian of Yeh’s novel cites the best opinions of the literary critics about this textual episode—it is meant to ridicule an Italian count from whom Cervantes expected some patronage that never materialized. The narrator dismisses them with the soundest logic and good morals: “I have viewed such coincidences with suspicion, since it leads to an absurdity in the context of a dedication…more than that, by praising so publicly the grace of a person who has not indeed been gracious…it implies a nasty sarcasm.” It is by means of logic that we have entered completely into the fiction.
It is fitting that the novel’s nexus with our reality (if anything merits the name) is this point residing in another fiction.
This detail, the passage from Don Quixote, is the only one I’ve allowed myself to verify. Stepping outside of Yeh’s texts into the work of historians to find out what we owe to his imagination and what we owe to theirs seems beside the point. After all, if we checked a history book we would only find another cobbled together textual trail, interpreted in a fashion that is never disinterested. For instance, I do not know if Cervantes lost his hand as a noble soldier in battle, or as condemnation for attempted murder—Yeh’s narrator claims to have found documents suggesting both, perhaps relating to two men of the same name. I don’t know if any doubt in fact exists in the historical record, or if there’s any reason to believe he lost a hand at all. I learn, in a different sense, from the invention, discovery, or interweaving of these “archival discoveries,” the two Miguel de Cervantes, one a man of honor and one a scoundrel, how the method of historiography can play against our certainty and provoke our imagination and undecidability.
Interweave—no doubt this word is best for what Yeh accomplishes through his narrator. Knowing if he invents or discovers is difficult or impossible, but one can marvel at how the threads he gathers come together, regardless of their sources. As with Don Quixote, a permanent severance from the source seems to be the impetus of Stolen Oranges. Cervantes imagined a historian, Cide Hamete Berengeli, whose Arabic text was supposed to be the basis of his own—making Don Quixote a translation of an original no one has ever read. Yeh’s narrator claims to have gathered the letters of Cervantes and the Emperor and translated them from Chinese, making profuse apologies for the necessary infidelity of bringing together such heterogeneous tongues.
One of the most beautiful exchanges which this task of translation makes (im)possible describes the different orders of unreality experienced by the emperor. Don Quixote, in his madness, appears isolated in his own mind, trapped within Western subjectivity and a rhetoric of agency and free choice. The emperor does not want to choose a private unreality over a shared one (what we might carelessly call reality), but by negating the self and its experience of the world to share and dissolve in unreality. He tells Cervantes (whose name, Miguel, has been translated into Chinese, then transliterated), “Ah, Mi Hai, you have made madness touching and humorous and appealing, and I foresee that day when your whole world will be mad, each person acting out of himself and for himself, raising free choice to a principle of life, assuming individuality as a structure of existence…All wisdom will be lost, Mi Hai, because all wisdom lies outside the self.”
I don’t necessarily agree with the emperor’s interpretation of Don Quixote—perhaps the most beautiful part of the novel is how so many characters come to play a role willingly, whether as collaborators or villains, within what become Quixote’s shared, communal fantasies. But this is the lovely thing about fiction, about Stolen Oranges, one does not need to believe an idea to muse over it, learn from it, to write it.
Yeh’s work helps us to pose some of the most pressing questions with respect to our history, culture, and literary cannon. Did Don Quixote, which played at being the translation of an Arabic history, summon the specters of Spain’s oppressed Muslims or flippantly silence them? Does Yeh’s novel allow for a displacement of western storytelling by letting the Emperor’s perspective intrude upon it, or can he only romanticize an “Eastern” way of thought inevitably constructed as the other of the “West”? Who has the right or the power to impose a history, a language, an orthography, a calendar, a clock time, and all of the fabric on which what passes as shared experience becomes possible? Don Quixote and Stolen Oranges demonstrate the violence of these impositions and appropriations, while nonetheless reminding us that the sovereign fools himself, becomes a self-parody, if he thinks he can control this absolutely.
One of the most resonant and insightful passages from Cervantes’ letters considers a version of this experience, playing a role within another’s story, another’s madness. Cervantes describes his mother’s declining mental health, and the strategies she took on to hide it or hide from it. He sees himself as one of the many characters drawn into Don Quixote’s fantasies:
And when I stayed with my mother despite knowing her to be completely demented, when I did her bidding, fulfilled her wishes, led her on with her fancies, talked to her reasonably, encouraged her, played the roles she gave me, was I not as insane as she? I repaid her in kind, Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote, accepting her folly for mine because she was who she was to me and I to her, because she cared for me and fed me my childish fantasies.
Every child creates such a world, until they learn to inhabit someone else’s, and our second childhood, senescence, is a return toward the fantasy of that first one, toward death.
The novel’s final poignancy is brought about by its postal principle. Our narrator reminds us that these letters, which take years to travel between sender and recipient, produce a different relationship to time, to oneself and to the other, than instant communication. One feels this space opening, this transit, transition, and transitoriness, when reading the emperor’s last two letters. Cervantes dies before the first reaches him, and is long dead before the second is ever written. This structural possibility of every missive, that it outlives both writer and reader, reveals something about whom we write to in the first place. How can I write to you after you die? Must it not be the case that I am always, even in the most instantaneous of communications, even in speaking, communing with you in myself, with my faith and my hope that I carry within me enough of the outside for my words to reach beyond?
Just last year, a week after an old friend passed away, I received a letter from a charity he founded. Expecting some notice of his death, I opened it to find only their annual request for donations, with my deceased friend’s handwritten signature. In whose stories does he now live on?
And when you read this, where will I be, always already…
Max Yeh is the author of The Beginning of the East (FC2, 1992). He was born in China, educated in the United States, and has lived in Europe and Mexico. He has taught at the University of California, Irvine, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and New Mexico State University. He lives in the New Mexico with his wife and daughter.
Jonathan Basile is the creator of an online universal library, libraryofbabel.info. His non-fiction has been published in The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and Electric Literature, and his fiction has been published in minor literature[s] and Litro. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Emory’s Comparative Literature department. @JonotrainEB.