Inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-nominated novel Quichotte (pronounced in the French way, key-SHOT) is a work of postmodern picaresque with a metafictional narrative device thrown in for good measure. Quichotte is the name of a book-within-a-book being written by Sam DuChamp, a mediocre ageing spy-fiction novelist. He chronicles the travels of a lunatic who calls himself Quichotte, who is on a quest to earn the love of Salma R., a woman he only knows from a daytime TV show. The dual plotline follows both Sam as he writes the story of Quichotte and the character of Quichotte himself.
Most of the narrative focuses on the eponymous lunatic, whose mind, addled by a stroke and by the consumption of far too much TV, conjures up a dream of gallantly proving himself worthy of Salma’s love. He also brings into existence, through sheer force of will, the son he has always wanted, whom he names Sancho. As they travel the world in pursuance of Quichotte’s quest, the question of what it means to be human is posed over and over again.
Sancho starts off in black and white and soon bursts into full colour—like Pinocchio, he wants to be real; he wants an independent life, away from his father. He too falls in love and embarks on a quest to win a woman. Neither quest goes as the protagonists hope, of course. Gallant knights are incompatible with the modern world: as a blue fairy tells Sancho, noble lovers who turn up on a woman’s doorstep and pour her a love potion would now be considered rapists—such actions are “frowned on at the present time.”
Meanwhile, as Quichotte seeks to conquer the Seven Valleys of the Quest, he and Sancho encounter a town some of whose inhabitants have been transformed into mastodons, among other strange places. Rushdie’s work is always deeply allusive (what literary critics call intertextual) and Quichotte is no exception. Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Don Quixote, Pinocchio, the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Rushdie’s own previous novels are among the many literary predecessors woven into the book.
Quichotte is very funny. At the book’s launch at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (an event I review here), Rushdie opined that he was incapable of “serious” writing; George Eliot, he said, was a genius—but her work doesn’t make one giggle. But the book is also tragic, beautiful, and—despite, or rather because of, its use of magic realism—engaged with the real world. A spy who visits Sam says of his tale of Quichotte, in one of many of the work’s self-conscious moments:
“I’m no critic, sir, but I estimate that you’re telling the reader that the surreal, and even the absurd, now potentially offer the most accurate descriptors of real life. It’s an interesting message, though parts of it require considerable suspension of disbelief to grasp.”
In his memoir, Joseph Anton, Rushdie, quoting from Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December, argues that the writer’s task is to “open the universe a little more.” In all his works—especially his latest—Rushdie does this by taking a sidelong, absurdist and comedic look at reality. For all the talking crickets, imaginary sons, mastodon townsfolk and metafictional musings, Quichotte is a novel which engages with the real world—not in spite of these fantastical things, but through them.
Quichotte is an American novel, refracted through the lens of the immigrant experience in the age of Trump. It explores what it means to be human, what it means to be uprooted from home, and what America has lost. In Edinburgh, Rushdie said of Donald Trump “I didn’t want him in my fucking book!” (to much laughter) but his book deals with an America in which Trump is an effect rather than a cause, the result of a profound malaise, whose presence feeds that malaise and deepens divisions. Sancho sees visions of normal people with dog collars around their necks but with nobody holding their leashes. The unreal real reveals the truth: ordinary people, whose prejudices have been caged for years, can turn into monsters and assault teenagers just because of their brown skin.
What is the cure for this ill? Perhaps there isn’t one—Quichotte and Sancho find themselves in a universe that is literally unravelling, collapsing and becoming nothing: the apocalypse is at hand, a consequence of our fall from grace and the monsters we’ve become. But there is also love and solidarity, family and humanity. The quest, Quichotte suggests, imposes meaning on our lives in and of itself; it is about how to be human. The journey itself is the point for it is transformative, as Rushdie has elsewhere written. Quichotte’s quest for love, while mad, is an act of redemption, a way to make a broken life mean something. He reconciles with his estranged sister, as does Sam Du Champ—reality, fiction and fiction-within-fiction merge, intermingle and echo each other in this novel, suggesting the power of storytelling and its ability to reveal truth. Many echoes of Rushdie’s own life are to be found in the narrative, too. Sancho’s selfish actions, on the other hand, threaten to doom him.
Quichotte operates on many levels and in multifarious ways, reflecting Rushdie’s lifelong preoccupation with fragmented identities—with lunatics and immigrants, multiplicity and hybridity. Above all, the novel revels in the power of fiction—whether in the form of TV or literature—and its pages contain profound and moving meditations on betrayal, love and redemption.
But, for all these serious themes, the book is incredibly funny as suggested above. The tragic and the comic come together to inspire and enlighten. Rushdie, as ever, writes both beautifully and profoundly. Quichotte is not a lightweight book, but it is very entertaining and easy to read: it will keep you up, turning its pages until late into the night. The writing and storyline are full of vim and vigour. Rushdie is an exuberant, feverish writer, whose words paint pictures and tell tales of astonishing beauty and complexity. He also makes time for slower, more meditative sections, but, in every case, the prose is a glorious rainbow, full of intermingling colour and dash. The opening line of the novel hints at the writing’s nature and quality:
There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a travelling man of Indian origin, advancing years and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result.
There is a lot going on in this book—from the ending of the universe to talking crickets, the opioid crisis, Brexit, the nature of the hijab, troubles in India and hate crimes—but Rushdie is a master of his art, a veteran puppeteer with a thousand strings in his hand, all completely under his control.
I urge you to buy this book and read it. You will discover things about yourself and the world that you would never have expected. Salman Rushdie has opened the universe a little more with each of his works. Quichotte is one of his greatest novels—and that is truly saying something.