The Present, A Reflection of the Past

Back in early 17th century Spain, a former solider of the Spanish Navy infantry became increasingly frustrated of how culture during his time is shaping up. Challenging what he deemed was “vain and empty”, he wrote a masterpiece that was a parody of the beloved chilvalric romances. What he wrote transcended his time and is widely recognized as the first modern novel. It is also one of the most translated work of fiction. That writer was Miguel de Cervantes, the literary maestro behind one of the most popular literary works, Don Quixote. 

Since Don Quixote’s publication, many a literary work has been used to satirize the prevailing atmosphere in a certain place and time such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Inspired by this timeless classic, popular author Salman Rushdie built his latest work and 14th novel, Quichotte, around this premise. Pronounced as “Key-shot”, it is the journey of an old man across the United States to win over the woman who has captured his heart.

Quichotte is a story within a story. The character Quichotte was born out of Indian-born writer Sam DuChamp’s imagination. Currently living in America, DuChamp is the writer of lackadaisical and lackluster spy thrillers. In an attempt to deviate from what he normally writes, he created Ismail Smile, a successful travelling pharmaceutical salesman who was obsessed with reality TV and Salma R., a former Bollywood actress hosting a daytime talk show in New York City. Smile fervently wrote letters to Salma R. under the pseudonym Quichotte.

“One’s goal is the shedding of mental obstacles that prevent one from being flooded with the glorious universal, love as being. It is a goal, therefore, that requires of us the absolute and irreversible abandonment of reason, for love is without reason, above it and beyond it, it also comes without rational explanation and lives on where there is no reason for it to survive.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Quichotte

In true knight errant fashion, Quichotte set out on a conquest to meet the star of dreams, his Chevrolet Cruz turned into his very own Rocinante. His quixotic idea soon conceived an imaginary son who he aptly named Sancho. Covering a majority of the stretch of continental America, Quichotte and Sancho encountered the diverse colors of America – from the dusty dirt roads to the greasy restaurants to the busy interchanges to the quaint suburbs.

This novel, however, is not just about the journey the two fictional character took. Through Quichotte and Sancho’s journey, Rushdie painted a picture of contemporary America. As one pans out Rushdie’s flowery words, what surfaces are large nuggets of issues and concerns that plague the country. Vestiges of Rushdie’s previous novel, The Golden House, the political colors in particular, were also echoed in Quichotte. The exploration of political issues has become obligatory, a staple of every modern American novel.

But Quichotte also steps out of the bounds of politics and takes on several seminal and key issues. One of the most recurring subject is the opioid overdose crisis that has swept America in 2016 and 2017. An American story would not be complete without takes on racism and Quichotte depicted plenty of it. The impact of popular culture in our lives and the reliance on media was aptly captured by Rushdie’s capable hands. “As a country, we are at the mercy of the media, which sets the agenda for all,” one character uttered.

The literary microscope was also place to highlight issues closer to home like pedophilia and body-shaming. Quichotte’s America is the result of our growing nonchalance to relevant issues and subjects. Racism slowly becomes a norm – not tolerated but accepted. The lives of ordinary citizens become reality shows that are consumed by gossip mongers. Everyone resort to violence as the primary, not the last, option to resolve misunderstandings and disputes. Our politicians and incompetent governments are the outcome of our lack of will to change and challenge anomalies in our time.

“Maybe this was the human condition, to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths. Maybe human life was truly fictional in this sense, that those who lived it didn’t understand it wasn’t real.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Quichotte

Despite some fantastical and magical elements, Quichotte is a rich and dense realist work. Quichotte’s illusions drove him to an irreversible journey. He continuously struggled with reality, besotted with his own ideas. It is a subtle reference to the cultural revolution portrayed within the premises of the story. We are in “The Age of Anything Can Happen,” where “Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents.” Ludicrous illusions turned into realities which men must adopt to. Just like how Quichotte and Sam DuChamp’s lives intertwined, reality and fantasy converge.

Quichotte underlines Rushdie’s unmatched talent in exploring discomfiting subjects or topics that one wouldn’t normally discuss. He has remained resolute and never shies from heavy and difficult subjects. What is even more fascinating is how he adapted his writing to what is in vogue. Although he drew inspiration from an ageless classic, he mapped it out using the current generations’ tastes. His fluency in this emoji, social media, and Netflix generation’s language came across in his latest work and helped enhance its landscape without sacrificing its stronger merits.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize, Quichotte is a close definition of the word quixotic which originated from the story this novel was modeled on. Through this work, as he always does, Rushdie stepped out of the box. He was his usual witty self; humor is abundant For the most part he succeeded but there were corners where the wordplay was a little exorbitant, too petulant.

Rushdie’s quirky mix of satire, parody and pastiche also requires from the reader a high level of concentration. Quichotte, to say the least, is an ambitious undertaking, a story about stories. Ironically, despite these stories being necessary, none of them are true. Rather than drawing the entire picture for the readers to gape at, Rushdie left it to the reader’s imagination to draw conclusions on how the story ended. In between the novel’s opening and closing lines are several stories, none of which gives a complete picture.

“Systems of thought, and their antitheses as well, are merely codifications of what we think we know. When we begin to abandon them, we open ourselves to the immensity of the universe, and therefore also to immense possibilities, including the possibility of the impossible.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Quichotte

A resolute storyteller, Rushdie was his masterful self with his modern and creative retelling of an ageless classic. Through Quichotte, Rushdie pays homage to an immortal literary piece whose influence and impact still reverberate more than four centuries after its initial publication. His marriage of popular culture and literary classic left so much to be desired. It is a package that one cannot simply place in one literary box. It makes readers look forward to what Rushdie has more in store. 

With Rushdie’s ingenuity, he vividly drew a picture, not just of contemporary America, but of the distorted reality that we collectively call our world. His concerns were tightly knit into the tapestry of his dense work. Symbolically, Rushdie left a gaping hole at the end. Maybe it was left like that because, in reality, how our time is going to shape up will ultimately depend on us. As illusion dissolves into reality, our current pandemonium bares weight on our future.

Ratings:

84%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Salman Rushdie, over the years, have gained a fan in me. His works are out-of-the-world and his resolve to go beyond the bounds of literature is admirable. Quichotte is the latest result of this resolve. In this novel, he exhibited yet again his literary repertoire, a return to form if you may. His work prior to Quichotte, The Golden House, was a dampener. In a manner of speaking, Rushdie, through Quichotte, re-announced to the world that he is one of the literary greats. It is a quirky and humorous work that resonates with the concerns and issues of current times.

Book Specs

Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Random House
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 390
Genre: Picaresque, Satire

Synopsis

Inspired by the Cervantes Classic, Sam DuChamp, mediocre writer of spy thrillers, creates Quichotte, a courtly, addled salesman obsessed with television who falls in impossible love with a TV star. Together with his (imaginary son), Sancho, Quichotte sets off on a picaresque quest across America to prove worthy of her hand, gallantly braving the tragicomic perils of an age where “Anything-Can-Happen.” Meanwhile, his creator, in a midlife crisis, has equally urgent challenges of his own.

Just as Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to satirize the culture of his time, Salman Rushdie takes the reader on a wild ride through a country on the verge of moral and spiritual collapse. And with the kind of storytelling magic that is the hallmark of Rushdie’s work, the fully realized lives of DuChamp and Quichotte intertwine in a profoundly human quest for love and a wickedly entertaining portrait of an age in which fact is so often indiscernible from fiction.

About the Author

To know more about Salman Rushdie, click here.