OCTOBER 29, 2019
AFTER THE BIBLE, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote is said to be the best-selling book of all time, with estimated sales of 500 million copies. In 2002, the Guardian surveyed 100 of the “world’s best authors” (including Salman Rushdie) regarding which book was the best of all time. Don Quixote won. It attracted 50 percent more votes than any other book, including those by Shakespeare, Homer, and Tolstoy.
Quichotte, Rushdie’s latest novel (his 14th, short-listed for this year’s Booker Prize) features a parodic descendent of Don Quixote — Quichotte (adopted from the title of Jules Massenet’s opera Don Quichotte, first performed in 1910). The novel also features Sancho as his son, a modern substitute for the original squire, Sancho Panza, and Salma R (a near homonym of Salman), an opioid-addicted talk-show host who stands in for Dulcinea del Toboso, a promiscuous pig raiser who is elevated to the status of royalty and female perfection by Don Quixote. Instead of Don Quixote’s old nag Rocinante, Quichotte drives an old Chevy Cruze across the United States. Where Don Quixote starts off satirizing the 17th-century addiction to chivalric romance, Rushdie’s Quichotte is “deranged by reality television,” including Salma R’s celebrated talk show.
But Rushdie’s novel is much more than a parodic modern recasting of Cervantes’s famous novel. Rushdie has listed some of the genres he has used: “[T]he picaresque, the absurd, the spy novel, the science-fiction novel, the realistic, emotional drama.” He says that he wants to “capture a panorama of our own surreal, metamorphic time.” The novel’s time is virtually the present, post-2016, and who better than Rushdie with his well-known exuberance and inventiveness to attempt to give fictional life to this crazy, scary era in which we all find ourselves. As one character puts it, “It is the Age of Anything-Can-Happen.” And just about anything you can imagine does, including the imagined end of the world.
Rushdie has said that he originally intended Quichotte to be about “this crazy old coot and his imaginary kid sidekick.” But a parallel story “showed up” about a writer called Brother, who has a son called Son and a sister called Sister. A writer of “eight modestly (un)successful spy fictions,” Brother decides to write a (the) novel about Quichotte and his picaresque travels through a contemporary America. This second narrative comes to play as important a role as the primary one and offers Rushdie numerous opportunities to play sophisticated metafictional games. As he points out, “whereas the Quichotte story is comic and playful, the author story line is much more emotional.” These dual narratives offer a challenge to Rushdie: how successfully will they be integrated within the book as a whole? Rushdie rises to the occasion with skill and panache and produces a tightly controlled plot line, something that has sometimes been a weakness in his previous novels.
Another striking feature of this book is that most of the major characters in it are Indian American (meaning Indian subcontinent). Even Salma R began life as a Bollywood actress in Bombay (not Mumbai). So is Quichotte Indian American. So is Brother, who describes himself as “multiply rooted, like an old banyan tree.” Rushdie began life as a global writer of the transnational novel and helped establish it as a popular genre. An emigrant first from India, then England, he has called himself “an American, Bombay born.” He sees his displaced status as a distinct advantage in the world of fiction: “[I]t gives you the ability to see the world in more ways.” I love the moment in the novel when an Indian human rights lawyer asks indignantly, “Isn’t everyone a person of color? What am I? Colorless?”
Just as Cervantes used Don Quixote as a means for exposing the dirty underside of Spanish society, so Rushdie offers a satiric and humorous portrait of America in the age of Trump. Not that he ever mentions Trump by name. But still, this is a world without rules, where “[m]en who played presidents on TV could become presidents.” It is a world in which depth has been replaced by surfaces, especially the junk culture of TV to which Quichotte is seriously addicted. He has absorbed so much cable TV that he has fallen “victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies” has been erased.
Rushdie has said that when he reread Don Quixote as preparation for writing this novel, he began to wonder “how many more times are the Knight of the Dolorous Countenance and Sancho going to get beaten up and left in pain in various roadside ditches?” To counter the extreme formlessness of the picaresque narrative, Rushdie’s writer, Brother, borrows from the Sufi poet Farid-ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds the symbolic journey through seven valleys. On the one hand, this attempt to impose order on a picaresque narrative is oxymoronic; on the other, Quichotte’s use of the seven valleys is seen to be just another of his delusions, though he couldn’t have picked up his knowledge of The Conference of the Birds from reality TV. Rushdie makes sardonic use of the myth, showing for instance Quichotte and Sancho finding nothing but hate in the Valley of Love.
Quichotte is a pharmaceutical salesman who is laid off near the beginning of the novel. He decides to seek the love of Salma R by journeying to Manhattan, where she lives, across an America suffering from a serious bout of unreality, helped by Fentanyl. In the course of his travels, he encounters a town where its inhabitants are gradually turning into mastodons who run rampant and are impervious to good sense. The mastodons are allegorical representatives of “all the enemies of contemporary reality: the anti-vaxxers, the climate loonies, the news paranoiacs, the UFOlogists, the president.” They are an acknowledged borrowing from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. In another episode, Sancho gets beaten up by white nationalists wearing collars (unleashed dogs of war).
Sancho himself is parthenogenically conjured up from nowhere by Quichotte out of his deep need for a son. A product of Quichotte’s imagination, at first Sancho only knows what Quichotte knows and all his memories are the same as his father’s. Later, he acquires enough distance to realize that not only is his father buried in his world of fantasy but that Sancho too, even his birth, “had its roots in fantasy.” Sancho compares himself to Pinocchio, the puppet carved from wood to satisfy the puppet maker’s desire for a son. Like Pinocchio, Sancho plans to free himself from his master’s control. “There are no strings on me.” He even gets to meet the Blue Fairy (who remarks after performing a piece of magic, “that was pretty much above my pay grade”) and Disney’s Jiminy Cricket, who explains his surprise appearance: “I’m a projection of your brain, just in the way you started out as a projection of his.”
Sancho soon suspects that there’s “[s]omebody — yes — making him [Quichotte] the way he made me.” Indeed there is. There is Brother making Quichotte up. Brother simultaneously is the protagonist of the second parallel plot and a perfect foil for Rushdie’s exploitation of the metafictional possibilities of this tale within a tale. Brother has a successful sister living in London with whom he violently quarreled years before. She is now dying of cancer, and he is desperate to reconcile with her. Lo and behold! He gives Quichotte a sister living in New York City who Quichotte insulted years before and by whom Quichotte knows he has to be forgiven before he can make his play for Salma R.
Rushdie has fun turning his internal writer’s world into as much of a fiction (which of course it is) as the fiction about Quichotte that Brother is inventing. A writer of spy fiction, Brother is visited by a government agent who asks for his help in persuading his estranged son to help the government’s cyberwar. “The world Brother had made up had become real.” And what is cyber war? “[T]he pollution of the real by the unreal, of fact by fiction.” As the book progresses, Rushdie employs increasingly outrageous and impossible devices to underscore the unreal nature of both contemporary America and the fictions attempting to reflect it. Quichotte’s former employer appears in a puff of smoke. “Maybe puffs of smoke were available now. Maybe you could buy them at Walmart, like guns.” Talking of guns, Quichotte has a gun that talks to him. Also, the news anchor starts talking to him from the TV.
This is more than magic realism, because it questions and justifies its use of impossible events. Rushdie is dealing with a mad society that has eroded the division between truth and fiction, reality and illusion, to the point where they have become indistinguishable. New York, where everyone ends up in the finale, is just “the myth factory lost in the myth of itself.” Everywhere boundaries have broken down — between author and narrative, media and message, magic and science. Near the end, Brother feels that America “began to feel progressively less real to the Author than the versions he had invented and lived in and with for a year and more.” This undermines everyone’s sense of identity. The government agent keeps changing his name. Brother’s Daughter concludes, “I don’t need a mask. I’m already the mask of myself.” The only indicator of identity that remains in place is money. Sancho observes, “If you’re not buying stuff, if you’re not making repayments, the system doesn’t recognize that you exist.”
The closer the two plot lines get, the more suspect their reality status becomes. Rushdie comments, “A third party, reading these accounts, might even, at a certain point, conclude that both were fictional […] That the Author’s life was a fake, just like his book.” When Sister on her deathbed tells Brother for the first time that she had been sexually assaulted by their father when she was young, Brother is forced to conclude, “Maybe this was the human condition, to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths.” Maybe human life is nothing but a fiction we tell ourselves.
Rushdie gives fictional reality to this disintegration of the boundary between fact and fiction by gradually drawing the two plots together. Brother begins to have difficulty distinguishing his from Quichotte’s histories. On being told the outlines of Brother’s story, Sister suggests he is lampooning himself. Toward the end, first Daughter calls Brother the angel of death and then Brother has a statue of Hans Christian Andersen ask Quichotte whether he isn’t the angel of death. After all, it is natural that Brother should create a fictional universe that mirrors his own concerns. Rushdie has a revealing comment on this structural stratagem: “[F]iction lives in a parallel space to whatever we now mean by reality, so I was writing about the possibility of crossing the frontier of those two universes.” The plot reinforces — or rather enacts — the book’s and characters’ insistence that our contemporary world no longer sees a difference between fact and fiction, real news and fake news.
At the end of the book, Brother stages an imagined end of the world. This provides Quichotte, who is now accompanying Salma R, with the shape and happy ending that a life of TV soaps has led him to desire. Simultaneously, it enables Brother to write the conclusion to Quichotte’s journey through the last Valley of Annihilation, where the self is supposed to disappear into the universe and become timeless. Brother believes that death offers clarification of life. When he stages it at the end of his story, however, his characters leave their fictional world only to find Brother’s world too much for them to survive in.
There is so much more in the book that I haven’t time to discuss. There is a high-tech millionaire called Evel Cent offering the hope of an escape to a parallel Earth. There is Sister’s husband, a high court judge who loves to cross-dress at home. There are allusions to Moby-Dick, to stories by Katherine MacLean and Arthur C. Clarke, to a song by Paul Simon. There is a whole narrative strand concerning Fentanyl (Quichotte was a rep for it; Salma R is addicted to it). There is a spy story and some sci-fi embedded in it. In other words, it is a typical Rushdie mélange: partly a mess, yet spilling over with invention and defying narrative conventions with glee. Rushdie has spoken about his lifelong indebtedness to the Arabian Nights, and he has said that its influence can be seen in Don Quixote. It is equally a source for Quichotte, another marvelous concoction by a masterly writer.