New Salman Rushdie Novel, ‘Quichotte’ Review

Paul Norris 17 October 2019
Michal Osmenda, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s pronounced ‘key-SHOT’, the author explains, though not without raising several alternatives (German, Italian, Cervantian Spanish, modern Spanish, Portuguese). This is typical of a book where reality is always open to being intoned differently. Quichotte’s pan-American quest to win the love of media personality Salma R is one reality, though Quichotte is not his real name, and is also revealed to be a character in a novel. Its author, called only Brother, is wrangling over whether to make peace with a long estranged Sister. Both stories take place before a background of racism and inane media which Rushdie takes to characterise modern British and American culture.

Playing postmodern variations on the Quixote theme is not a new idea. Cervantes has inspired authors since Shakespeare, whose lost play Cardenio is based on an episode from Don Quixote. More recently, the spirit of Quixote haunts Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985): when Auster appears as a character in his own book, he is writing an essay on Quixote. The fictional Auster’s thoughts on Cervantes draw out how unnervingly (post)modern the original novel seems today, as Quixote seems like a self-portrait: ‘What better portrait of a writer than to show a man who has been bewitched by books?’

Quichotte is bewitched by daytime television rather than books, but is nonetheless a stand-in for his creator, Brother. Quichotte’s love of mindless television is in fact the successor to more highbrow interests (he adopts his name from a Massenet opera), which become less interesting to Quichotte after a stroke. So perhaps all that lies between Brother and Quichotte is an ‘interior event’.

Publicly, however, Brother denies the parallel, defending the author’s right to invent things without being plagued by biographical inferences. (One assumes that Brother’s denials themselves stand-in for Rushdie’s own relationship to Brother.) Brother’s own life comes increasingly to parallel Quichotte’s, leading him on a similar quest for reconciliation.

Quichotte lacks the mysteriousness of Auster’s novel. Although Rushdie’s two parallel storylines are muddled as they progress, as the line between fiction and reality is eroded (Brother’s earlier spy novels, for instance, intrude into his own life when his son is involuntarily recruited by intelligence services), their resolution is remarkably neat. One feels as though Rushdie set out to write a novel which lays out the disparate, fragmentary nature of reality in modern-day Britain and America, but couldn’t resist bringing the strands together.

Though they are unnamed, references to Trump, Brexit and the Sackler opioid scandal abound in the first hundred pages or so, and we are made to feel that these historic forces shape the story throughout. Rushdie’s portrait of a Trump supporter is a racist woman who drives Quichotte and his son, Sancho (who is, initially at least, imaginary), away from a campsite. The only probable Brexit voter is an insensitive retired Tory politician (‘Isn’t everyone a person of colour? What am I? Colourless?’).

These inclusions focus the narrative on a single perspective: metropolitan, liberal, anti-Trump, anti-Brexit. No doubt there are a great number of elderly Tories who can’t see the point of racial justice, just as there are small-town Americans who turn immediately to violence when they encounter people of colour. But when Sancho (who is initially imaginary but becomes real enough to think) observes all the different ways Americans narrativize their lives and the wider world, wondering ‘which this is America now’, I couldn’t help but feel that Rushdie had already made his mind up.

This is not to say that Rushdie is wrong about Trump, gun violence, racism or Brexit, only that the satirical impulse to simplify and exaggerate is at odds with the radical pluralism of the Quixote story. Quixote’s delusions do not clarify everyone else’s idea of reality. They are radically destabilising, as emerges in Part Two of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published ten years after the first. Here, multiple fictions vie with each other: Quixote’s chivalric delusions as he sets off on his third sally; Don Quixote Part One (familiar to many characters in Part Two, including Quixote himself), and the myths spread by a fraudulent Part Two (which really was published, by an anonymous author in Tarragona, four years after Don Quixote Part One).

Rushdie’s satire feels less at odds with the form of his book when confronting the opioid crisis. Rushdie makes Quichotte’s brother, Dr Smile, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who is widely respected for bringing together Hindu and Muslim Indian immigrants. He also supplies powerful painkillers ‘off-label’ (i.e. for no medical reason). One of his customers is Salma, the American-Indian television star whom Quichotte pursues across America, a detail which brings two strands of Brother’s novel together.

Both Salma and Dr Smile have positive influences insofar as they allow themselves to be fictionalised (uncomfortable as this can be, especially for Salma, who confronts the bizarre fantasies people have about her in her fan mail, which includes Quichotte’s ornate love letters). Yet they themselves are both in thrall to their own fantasies. Dr Smile has a childish obsession with his private jet (and the more adult activities facilitated by the distance it provides from his wife). Salma escapes into a narcotic haze, described in the same terms Brother uses to dismiss a society without memory (‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream’).

Without having to name Trump or Brexit, Rushdie identifies a common fixation with a past that is constructed rather than remembered. Trump is vague about when exactly America was great, and when it stopped being great, but without the ‘again’ his slogan has no connection with anyone’s idea of what America is or could be.

Quichotte depicts how the past defines us even if we cannot define the past. Both Brother and Quichotte are alienated from their sisters, but neither can remember exactly why, nor who needs to apologise. Ultimately it is fiction that brings them together. Quichotte’s fantastical quest for his beloved brings him to New York, where his estranged sister lives.

Meanwhile, in the ‘real’ world, Sister’s daughter forges a reconciliatory email, and Brother’s novel inadvertently lets him understand a family trauma that defined Sister’s childhood. Quichotte is remarkably affecting considering the games it plays with authorship and reality, a reminder that a story can be moving even as it announces its own fictionality and implausibility.

In City of Glass, the fictional Auster believes that Don Quixote feigned madness and wrote his own story (by disguising himself as an Arab and translating the manuscript by Cid Hamete Benengeli on which Cervantes claims, playfully, that Don Quixote is based). Auster explains that Quixote was conducting an experiment:

He wanted to test the gullibility of his fellow men. Would it be possible, he wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction spew out lies and nonsense? To say that windmills were knights, that a barber’s basin was a helmet, that puppets were real people? Would it be possible to persuade others to agree with what he said, even though they did not believe him? In other words, to what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent. For the proof is that we still read the book. It remains highly amusing to us. And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book – to be amused.

In Quichotte an author who is not unfamiliar with charges of blasphemy suggests that we don’t only read the narratives we do not believe, but live by them. Postmodern games about truth and reality are enacted on a much bigger playing-board. Rushdie can only glance at the ways this is playing out politically. Given how clear he makes his standpoint, perhaps it would have been better to leave this implicit. But he tells a good story, touching and amusing.

 

Bibliography

Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy (London: Faber, 1988)

Miguel De Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman (London: Vintage, 2005)

Salman Rushdie, Quichotte (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019)