Satire Reviews

Salman Rushdie’s ‘Quichotte’ review | The league of ingenuous gentlemen

In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes wrote that a good part of his ageless marvel was translated from an Arabic manuscript that he found on the streets of Toledo. Four centuries later, Salman Rushdie’s extravagant Quichotte inverts this cheeky piece of metafictional mischief. While Cervantes implied his Quixote was real (or at least that he could have been), Rushdie’s Quichotte (Ismail Smile, a middle-aged retired TV-addicted pharmaceutical rep), in this story-within-a-story, is the creation of Sam DuChamp (Brother), an Indian-born writer of unexceptional spy thrillers.

Author and construct are joined at the hip, their lives entwined by “race, place, generation and circumstance”. Born in Bombay at around the same time in neighbouring apartment blocks, their golf-playing, cocktail-sipping parents may well have known each other had one set of them truly existed.

They also journey along a parallel narrative arc, Smile in search of his beloved (the famous talk show host Salma. R) and Brother, who dreams about making up with his sister (Sister) and settling a quarrel that is decades old.

One seeks love and the other atonement, which is also a form of love; but both seem driven by the same thing, a sense of self-validation. As the two stories grow in proximity to each other and Brother finally journeys to London to find his ailing Sister, he muses: “Now Quichotte and I are no longer two different beings… Now I am a part of him, just as he is a part of me.”

The two stories are the foundation for a rollicking riot of a novel, where the boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred and

Salman Rushdie’s ‘Quichotte’ review | The league of ingenuous gentlemen

where the fantastic is indiscernibly cloaked in verisimilitude. Rushdie seems to be saying that such epistemological uncertainty and ontological flux are only natural when the goal is the pursuit of love itself. “It... requires of us the absolute and irreversible abandonment of reason,” says Quichotte. “It comes without a rational explanation and lives on when there is no reason for it to survive.”

The mob rules

Of course, this is also the era of “Anything-Can-Happen”, the age of Donald Trump (a fabulist version of who makes an appearance on Salma’s TV show, propelling her unerringly into stardom), a time of prejudice, intolerance, bigotry and racism, all amplified by a social media where everyone is someone else and where “electronically propagated hysteria” has ushered in an age “in which the mob rules, and the smartphone rules the mob”.

Any Quichotte requires a Sancho and Brother creates him at one remove, as a figment of the former’s imagination and as a son. Invisible to anyone but his father at the beginning of his romantic quest, Sancho Smile slowly begins to acquire a form and a mind of his own. The parallels to Pinocchio are drawn, and yes there is a talking cricket and a blue fairy. In a retelling of the absurdist play Rhinoceros, the people in a small New Jersey town start turning into mastodons, an allegorical reminder that there are parallels between today’s age of intolerance and the upsurge of Fascism and Nazism that Eugene Ionesco darkly satirised.

There is plenty of literary referencing, but in the main, Rushdie draws on popular culture — music, reality television, celebrities — to critique a world caught in decline. “I think it is legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are crippled by the culture we have made, by its popular elements above all,” Quichotte tells Sancho, in one of the many commentaries that are interspersed in the novel. For Rushdie insiders, there are references to previous novels (Aurora Zogoiby from The Moor’s Last Sigh), to his interviews (“Nobody has the right not to be offended,” a statement he made following the publication of Joseph Anton, including to this newspaper) and to his former wives.

Not the mastodons

As Quichotte and Sancho travel across America in an old Chevy Cruise in the hope of meeting Salma, Quichotte has written a string of passionate letters, which intrigue her even as she worries he could be an unhinged stalker. Even though Quichotte declares that love is an audition and that he who knows how to present himself best to the beloved gets the part, his meeting with Salma, who has a darker side, is that between an opoid addict and a supplier.

The novel lurches spasmodically to a fabulist end, leaving one with the feeling that if this is one of Rushdie’s most engaging novels in recent times, it is not because of the mastodons, the opening in the cosmos and other fabulist leaps, but because, at the risk of sounding mundane, of plot.

It is a ripping yarn and broad-brushed though the characters may be, they come to life and offer up that emotional heft to lend his satirical critique a keen biting edge. It may be an odd, almost sacrilegious thing to say of a Rushdie novel, but this one will be remembered less for its magic and boisterous exuberance than for its sparer and more persuasive ‘realism’.

The writer is former editor of The Hindu and a Visiting Professor at Krea University.

Quichotte; Salman Rushdie, Penguin Random House,₹699


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