Quixote’s latest sally

Rushdie spars with a European classic to capture contemporary reality and its paradoxes to craft a detailed metafiction that is not a sum of its parts.

Published : Oct 09, 2019 07:00 IST

I N Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Quichotte , the reader follows parallel intercalated stories of an Indian-origin writer of spy novels and his latest fictional creation. In a feat reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, Quichotte is inspired by and borrows from different sources, most visibly, of course, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote (published in two parts in 1605 and 1615). The famous Spanish novel, lauded as the first modern novel, follows the adventures of Alonso Quixano, who decides to become a knight errant after reading too many chivalric romances. This homage is apt for the contemporary world that Rushdie vigorously takes to task for its umpteen crimes and misdemeanours.

In the novel, Sam DuChamp, an unsuccessful Indian-American writer of spy novels, starts writing a new novel with a hero called Ismail Smile. Born in Bombay (Mumbai), he is a travelling salesman for a major pharmaceuticals company. Smile obsessively watches TV, becoming infatuated with Salma R., a Bollywood actress who has become a famous TV star in the United States as well. The title of the novel derives from the name he uses to sign off his love letters to her: “Quichotte”. Smile embarks on a quest for her across the U.S. with his imaginary son Sancho, and as the novel progresses, Quichotte’s life becomes intertwined with that of his creator, DuChamp.

Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize along with five other books that include the projected winner The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, and Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, Quichotte is a very contemporary novel. At some point in the novel, Quichotte’s imaginary son Sancho who enjoys a brief lease of life muses: “He was trying to imagine himself into being a regular young human guy in a lumberjack shirt and blue jeans and boots, a dude who was discovering that he liked the music of Justin Timberlake, Bon Jovi, John Mellencamp, and Willie Nelson. He did not like hip-hop or bhangra or sitar music or the blues. He liked Lana Del Rey.”

In the original Don Quixote , the reader is moved because of the contrast between the cruelty of the world and Quixote’s illusions and ideals. In Quichotte , however, it is hard to muster that spontaneous fondness for Rushdie’s protagonists or that seething anger at the gross unfairness of the world. We follow the sensationalist plot but the characters, sans Sancho, are neither comic nor tragic; instead, they tryst with their baffling contemporariness. This is ironic, considering that the plot is mostly driven by Quichotte’s passionate quest for his Dulcinea, Salma R.

Quichotte ’s embrace of the absurd to critique our dystopian present firmly puts it in the camp of “hysterical realism”. James Wood coined the term to describe the frenetic mode of contemporary fiction that rides on uncanny connections and coincidences to investigate concepts and ideas. But Wood points out that the plots of these novels are often so ludicrous that the real people that they are supposed to embody could never endure the multiple shock twists that happen to their characters.

Quichotte’s picaresque quest for Salma R. is perilous because he lives in an age of “Anything-Can-Happen”, while his creator’s midlife crisis also proves formidable in its operatic challenges–and yet, both of them somehow survive. For contrast, consider the psychological drama Requiem for a Dream (2000), which also features an old widow who spends her time watching informercials. In the film, the characters succumb horrifically to their altered, lurid, cinematic realities. (There is something to be said about contemporary life that animates this trope of the blurring of imagination and reality which is ready to be fuelled by almost anything—drug addiction, urban isolation, depression, etc.)

Wood finds this style to be flawed because he claims that in the process character is traded down for caricature. We can see something similar in Rushdie’s most loved novel, Midnight’s Children (1981); the protagonist Saleem Sinai, albeit a complex figure, is also a metaphor for India’s history after independence.

In Quichotte, Rushdie’s protagonists spar with the world at large with gusto. No topic or trope is beyond evaluation. As “Brother” tells “Sister” about his novel, he lists the subjects and explains the format of the novel variously as parody, satire and pastiche: “He said he was trying to write about impossible, obsessional love, father-son relationships, sibling quarrels and yes, unforgivable things; about Indian immigrants, racism toward them, crooks among them; about cyber spies, science fiction, the intertwining of fictional and ‘real’ realities, the death of the author, the end of the world.”

The pivot of this looped, ever-looping metafictional disquisition is the television culture that triggers Quichotte’s unhinged pursuit. In this regard, Rushdie’s novel can be read alongside some of the pertinent questions raised by David Foster Wallace in his 1997 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”.

TV’s influence

Wallace argues here that television has become so good at embodying irony that its self-aware vapidity absorbs and accepts every criticism of it and turns it into material for display. He adds that fiction today cannot be written without consciously engaging with TV and that a “pop-conscious postmodern fiction” has attempted to transcend TV’s pervasive influence. Is Rushdie’s novel an upgraded and updated effort in this direction? There is, for instance, this exchange that seems to be inspired from a medieval morality play:

They drank in silence for a moment, then the Author had to ask, “Do you watch a lot of TV out there?”

“I told you. TV, YouTube, Spotify, Netflix, that’s about what there is to do. That and the gym. So, yeah. I like to watch things on TV. Why?”

“Nothing,” the Author said. “I guess there are some good things about TV as well as bad.”

As Quichotte shapes his life accordingly, the fictional tale dovetails with Rushdie’s foregrounding questions of imagination and reality. At the end of the novel, Quichotte, united with his Lady Love, travels through a portal to enter the world of his creator, Brother. Ultimately, in making Quichotte’s TV reality merge with his creator’s, Rushdie characterises contemporaneity as a concomitant of present-day culture. Thus, by making life imitate art, Rushdie embraces irony to elevate it as a new sentiment that surprises us without warning.

In Russian Doll (2019) the Netflix original, New York City-centric, magic realist comedy, a young woman dies repeatedly on the night of her birthday party to be reborn again and again. Stuck in this excruciating existential limbo on top of her self-loathing, the central character, Nadia Vulvokov, discovers in the course of the series that another character is also stuck in this enervating time loop. Yet it is the sheer humanity of their characters that makes them seek out each other and propels a resolution that is similarly ironic in its surprise ending.

Quichotte, though, is far more solitary. For this reason, perhaps, Quichotte’s chivalric world seems to be derived from popular culture, influencing his perceptions of reality. However, can popular culture alone not constitute an alternate history? Unfortunately, Rushdie does not rely on popular culture alone to capture the zeitgeist. There is an uneasy mingling of dimensions of “high” and “low” culture, like in Don Quixote , but in Quichotte this admixture only blunts the narrative.

For example, in the sub-novel within the novel, Quichotte and Sancho have to defend themselves from mastodons, a thinly veiled reference to Ionesco’s famous 1959 play, Rhinoceros . In Rhinoceros , people in a small French town turn into rhinoceroses, symbolising the rapid rise of fascism and Nazism. If people had been transformed to Bugs Bunnys instead of mastodons, would it have been too vacuous?

This is because there is a tension in the novel when Rushdie seems to consciously abstain from satire and make peace with this surreality. The contemporary culture is neither celebrated nor critiqued, merely passively inhabited. As Sister reflects on her career, she discerns the new textures of reality: “But now the discontinuity ruled. Yesterday meant nothing and could not help you build tomorrow. Life had become a series of vanishing photographs, posted every day, gone the next. One had no story anymore. Character, narrative, history, were all dead. Only the flat caricature of the instant remained, and that was what one was judged by. To have lived long enough to witness the replacement of the depth of her chosen world’s culture by its surfaces was a sad thing.”

To critique the age of surfaces would be to remonstrate with it for its lack of depth. But by inhabiting the spaces, the novel speaks something more beyond that opposition. Firstly, the novel documents Quichotte’s journey to demonstrate a Borgesian materialisation of ideas. While contemporary reality may not accommodate traditional meaningful relations or depth, it does stimulate a polyphony of ideas. Indeed, Quichotte wishes his son Sancho into existence. Further, Quichotte successfully meets Salma R. and survives the foretold apocalypse through the power of his imagination which, at certain times, seems to resemble his will.

Secondly, when the fictional characters break into the reality of the author, they appear to have never been imprisoned in the predestiny of their characters. This rupture of the simulacra reverses the parody to grant the fictional characters a new, emergent dignity. We initially cringe with Sancho at Quichotte’s florid declarations of love, but following their adventures and the histories of other characters, a semblance of sanity appears slowly to the reader from Quichotte’s delusions. For instance, even as the main characters resort to opioids in both the real and the fictional worlds in the novel, it is in the writer’s world that they have fatal consequences.

However, Rushdie’s cardinal mistake is to assume that identity is possible at all within this phantasmagoria of reality and illusion. Identity is, by nature, a delimitation. Quichotte’s expansive dreamscapes cannot embody such disjunctive categorisations smoothly. The background of the reality TV culture and American-style escapades dilute Rushdie’s attempts to devise an identity that is migrant and cosmopolitan at the same time.

Quichotte’s education of Sancho about his native culture seems insufficient against the crassness and violence of racism. Moreover, the brief discourse on Bambaiyya and the importance of the mother tongue seem like an inadequate response to Sancho’s incredulity when he experiences racial bigotry. The tirade against racism ultimately appears to be a feature of multicultural mainstream America than a reproval of it.

An American novel

This is a perplexing feeling because despite the marginality of the characters, Quichotte reads like an American novel par excellence. Amidst living his romantic fantasy, Quichotte tells Sancho that “Bambaiyya is a language of celebrated beauty”. When Quichotte and Sancho pass through the U.S. cities, geographical continuity in a fragmented world is restored only in a “linguistic act of possession”. But, in a world where the phantasmagorical is systemic as well as structural, what style of emancipation can the social markers of the marginal offer?

Like some of Rushdie’s other recent novels such as Fury (2001) or Golden House (2017), both of which are set in New York, Quichotte is also not organised like a typical postcolonial novel, denouncing the omnivorous centre from the resurgent margins. If Rushdie is no longer a “postcolonial writer”, however misleading the appellation, where is Rushdie writing from? With the postcolonial and the diasporic “moment” having passed, Rushdie’s novels seem to have become melting pots for American predicaments instead.

In the doubling between the author and the character, it becomes unclear whether the social and the political follow the individual’s neuroses or vice versa. Interestingly, other than Quichotte and his creator, all the other characters, including Sancho, seem transient. Sancho, who is the closest to a conscience keeper in the novel, literally vanishes at the end of the novel after trying to be independent of his father.

Typically, the episodic format of the picaresque tradition follows the plot of the story to capture a multiplicity. In Rushdie’s reimagining of the knightly story, the plots mirror each other and move forward to arrive at a concurrence that surprises the author. But it is also a telling concurrence. Quichotte is a novel whose dramatic vignettes you want to compare with movies you have seen but you would not really want to adapt them because that would be too conceptual, too trippy, too modern.

However, Cervantes’ Don Quixote goes to war with the world to uphold a glorious past of chivalry and romance, and Quichotte’s world alters with his quest. Unlike Quixote who dies a tragic death, Quichotte revises his history. He abandons the old, dying world and arrives in a new one. He survives, and maybe that is all that matters—in the end.

Susan Haris is a doctoral candidate in literature and philosophy at IIT Delhi.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment