It’s a glorious late summer’s morning in London as I set off to meet Salman Rushdie at the Penguin Random House offices in Pimlico — clear skies, the sun shining, the kind of weather that tempts you to love this city, despite its flaws, and usually puts even notoriously fractious commuters in a semi-tolerant mood. There’s a restive, testy feeling in the air though: the latest convulsion of the U.K.’s seemingly unending post-imperial psychodrama saw the prime minister persuade the Queen to prorogue parliament just the previous day. “You’ve chosen a very interesting time to land back in London,” I suggest to Rushdie as we settle in.
“Yes, yesterday was quite a day,” he observes. “I fear for this country.”
Brexit is not such a strange starting point for a discussion of Rushdie’s latest novel as might initially seem — indeed, Chapter 4 of Quichotte opens with the wry “Yes, we must sojourn for a time among the English, for so long thought to be the most pragmatic and common-sensical of people...”
The Booker-shortlisted novel is a strikingly contemporary reworking of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century masterpiece Don Quixote . (Spelling and pronunciation of the name, as the author puts it in a “quixotic note”, can be in the Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese or here preferred French style — but, “To each his/ her/ their own articulation of the universal Don”.)
And if Quichotte’s “old gunmetal grey Chevy Cruze” has taken the place of the Don’s horse Rocinante, and the majority of the action shifted from the plateau of La Mancha to the United States, this story within a story takes America, Britain and India into its ambit, and particularly the three great metropolises of each: New York, London, and Bombay.
So, let’s be blunt: “It feels that you’re quite clearly taking aim at Trump, at Brexit, at Modi.” (There’s a hint of a question as my voice rises at the end of that proposition; the treatment of India under the Bharatiya Janata Party is there, but not so prominently perhaps.)
Rushdie’s answer doesn’t feel terribly optimistic. “Well I just felt that the three countries are all in — I mean they’re not in the same moment, but they’re in moments which have resonances with each other. The Indian question is in some ways the most complicated because of his immense popularity. Here, you have a government that barely has a majority, a leader who as many people dislike as like; and in America too, you have a president who... to put it mildly, is as widely disliked as admired.”
Mildly indeed. After its dissection of the dystopian elements of contemporary London and Britain, that same chapter takes in “our other two countries” — America and India. “Black citizens were regularly killed by white policemen in one of these other countries... and children were murdered in schools because of a constitutional amendment that made it easy to murder children in schools; and in the other country, a man was lynched by sacred-cow fanatics for the crime of having what they thought was beef.”
Quichotte ’s mode is satirical, and like all good satire it should be saying something relevant to our age. “There is something exciting about going up against the day before yesterday, and trying to write about it in a way that is not reportage,” Rushdie offers. “It is dangerous, satire, but the best of it has qualities which are not only topical, but which have to do with human nature, and the way the world works anyway; with things that are eternal.”
The narrative is certainly sprawling — our author has a somewhat coy aside on that topic in the book itself, perhaps anticipating some of his critics — though recent popular culture suggests we as audiences are developing the tastes and patience for complex and difficult narratives alongside the saccharine and opiate (and yes, America’s opioid crisis is one of several themes). But if we’re in search of a single arc (though need we be?), Rushdie points towards one: “Quichotte and his ostensible author are both invested in the idea of becoming better people... That’s the story.”
We might link that to the particularly fraught position of the immigrant, especially the non-white immigrant, in Trump’s America — and Brexit Britain. One of the novel’s hardest-hitting though shortest scenes comes when Quichotte and his imagined son Sancho enter a bar in the town of Beautiful, Kansas, ranked as “the twelfth best city to live in in the United States.”
“It looked like a welcoming place, crowded with good-natured baseball fans. Also, ‘Look,’ Sancho said to Quichotte, ‘brown people.’... They waved at the two Indian men, who smiled and nodded. ‘ Salaam aleikum ,’ Quichotte called across the room. ‘ Namaskar ,’ the two Indian men replied... Soon after that a drunk man started shouting at the Indian men a good deal less cordially, calling them ‘fucking Iranians’ and ‘terrorists’, …and screaming, ‘Get out of my country.’”
The drunk is taken out, but not long after, he returns and shoots the two Indian men at the bar, along with another man who tries to intervene.
Rushdie brings up this example as he tells me how he wanted to get out of his comfort zone typified by the Manhattan-centric narrative of his 2017 novel, The Golden House . “I remember saying to myself, ‘Time to get out of town.’”
“There is no town in Kansas called ‘Beautiful’. But what there is you see — there was this case of a couple of Indian software engineers who got shot in Kansas, one of them died, one of them survived. And I try and keep an eye on what’s happening to Indian-Americans, you know... The town in Kansas where it really happened is called Olathe. Then I start digging into Olathe, and I discover it’s a Native American word meaning ‘beautiful.’”
Hence the scene, and hence the town, though the real-life 2017 shooting could easily get lost in the seemingly endless news around America’s gun-death pandemic.
But Quichotte ’s canvas is broader than the immigrant identities of its characters. Rushdie is writing of the age in which we live in an uncompromising way, especially as he takes on entertainment and even infotainment — perhaps with an eye to Fox News or any of the several Indian channels. “I was trying to make a point not unlike the point that Cervantes is making... which is that some kind of damage is being done by this sort of brainless and very manipulative television... When you arrive at a moment in a culture when powerful cultural artefacts begin to blur the lines between truth and fiction, you reduce people’s ability to make those distinctions.”
We are indeed in the era of ‘fake news’, but moreover an age when politicians of particularly right-wing stripes have been increasingly comfortable with telling barefaced lies, expecting — too often correctly — that they won’t face any tangible consequences for doing so.
And sure enough, Quichotte’s greatest delusion is “the fool’s conviction that the imaginings of creative people could spill over beyond the boundaries of the works themselves, that they possessed the power to enter and transform and even improve the real world.”
Rushdie himself expresses a sharp dislike for anything too polemic — “I’ve never been attracted to didactic art,” he tells me — so perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt. But look out for the mastodons, standing in for Ionesco’s rhinoceroses: “In India, whenever there’s communal violence, it’s people’s neighbours attacking them, people whose children were playing together the day before,” not to mention the American parallels.
At this time of crisis — and I think he and I agree on that for each of the three countries — with genuinely fake histories of false golden ages the most powerful political currency around, and with truth stranger than fiction, I ask him whether the work of the satirist is dead. He concedes: “Something terrible is happening in the world... The structures of the world seem to be crumbling, and it’s very unclear what will come next. The given of the world is no longer given. And one of the literary consequences is this: the great tradition of the realist novel is based on an agreement between the writer and the reader about the nature of the world.
When reality becomes contested, the foundation of the realist novel is eroded. What is left is human nature.”
The book is in flux, and he would have us read that as intentional. It challenges reality, what it is to be “normal”. And it’s certainly not an easy stroll for the reader. But human nature endures, “and all the rest is flamboyance”.
To call Rushdie a 21st century Cervantes might be overdoing it somewhat. But Quichotte is without doubt a worthy, even powerful, Quixote for our troubled times.
The writer is an academic at SOAS, University of London