author Salman Rushdie

Booker 2019: Quichotte

9th September 2019

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape

Reviewed by Claire Steele

Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a work frequently afforded the epithet ‘the first modern novel’, is a picaresque novel, the darling of the Golden Age, in which the wandering Quixote, maddened by a surfeit of chivalric literature, makes his way through Spain via a series of tragi-comic misadventures to redeem a society which has lost sight of what it is to be valiant.

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel picks up the baton, pitting the hopes and fantasies of Quichotte (one Ismail Smile, or Ismail Ismail) a travelling pharmaceutical salesman, against the ‘phenomenal collective will’ of the people. Rushdie’s Quichotte, like Cervantes’ hero, is a Romantic, moving fluently among the tropes of his generation: his drugs are our drugs: the internet, opiates, photo-shopped glamour, ‘the dizzying union of the real and the imagined.’

The term picaresque derives from the noun picaro – a scoundrel, thief or outlaw. Here Rushdie plunders the spoils of literature, reality tv shows, adverts, popular fiction, film, music YouTube and FaceBook (this being an indicative rather than complete list). If Quichotte is a comedy – and it is full of comic dialogue at which Rushdie is a past master – it is also a tragedy, an elegy to lost innocence. In that, Quichotte is a supremely moral work, grounded in social engagement: it is a book as much driven by political acuity, as ideas about love.

This is not just a post-modern retelling of the picaresque novel: it’s a scathing satire on fake-news and contemporary society; it’s a philosophical romp through being and nothingness, through reality and fantasy, wherein we are obliged to concede the Sartrean idea that appearance is the only reality and the world is an infinite sequence of finite appearances, not unlike an endless stream of ‘reality’ tv shows. The power of social practices – the invented and the real – is the aural sounding board against which we must constantly test the echoes of our own social selfhood. Rushdie’s Quichotte is a lovelorn knight who takes his cues from Love-Island-type tv shows, reduced to motel-living and social media, who lives in hope that his quest for love will be successful because he is after all, fortunate enough to be living in the Age of Anything Can Happen. The truth, of course, as Rushdie says ‘is a little more complex than that.’

Quichotte’s story, we discover, is the creation of Brother, a writer of ‘fifth-rate’ spy novels, writing in ‘the age of the invented name’. Brother’s own name, of course, references both Orwell and early typewriters. Quichotte, Brother’s invention as much as Cervantes’, is Brother’s ‘shadow-self’, their lives echoing each other’s, their preoccupations curiously repetitive. Their identities merge and separate, contradict and amplify each other: ‘Social media had made sure of that. Everyone was someone else now.’ Surveillance and truth, history and madness shake hands and swap partners.

The object of Quichotte’s affections is Salma, an opiate-addicted, Bollywood-turned-Hollywood star who hosts her own TV show. From his imagination he conjures a son, Sancho, ‘a visitor from the future’ whose reality is at first provisional and then, as we suspend disbelief, fully realised. Together, they embark on a road-trip quest to woo Sancho’s mother, the redoubtable and impossibly lovely Salma R.

If Salma and Quichotte are displaced from a nostalgic version of lost innocence, loosely gathered under the nationhood of India, they are equally displaced from a similarly romantic version of America. The America of their imaginations, (land of the free, land of opportunity) has morphed into a land in which none of their names are acceptable, or even recognisable. Rushdie grounds the old story in the bigger narrative of post-colonialism and America’s newly-emboldened white supremacists. Here is the dark side to the golden age: a narrative in which words ‘could lose their meanings and acquire new ones’ as easily as humans.

It is impossible today to cling to the notion of the self as indivisible, God-given. We are no longer individuals. We are made up of a vast library of selves, endlessly subject to spooling reiterations of the self, generated by Google, by literature. Some of this is old news. Some of it is fake news. All of it might pall, were it not for Rushdie’s supreme facility for literary pizzazz. Quichotte has charm in abundance, a joyous engagement with the sheer amplitude of language, which is always on the make, reinventing itself in ways that are now funny, now sinister. Quichotte is a dazzling, blousy, rude account of the unstable reality of modern life.

Quichotte offers all the life-enhancing exuberance of its Spanish predecessor, and some signal insights into the spiralling, doped-out, annihilating madness of our contemporary life and times, where we are in danger of becoming blinded to the very idea of what it is to be valiant.

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