Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth century novel, Don Quixote, was about a man unable to face the reality of his existence, a man on a seemingly deranged quest for an ideal of love, truth, and beauty in a world that for him had lost its enchantment. A contemporary retelling of the story of the self-styled knight’s exploits and his utter devotion to his romantic convictions in the face of dark times and unkind opposition is an entertaining and surprisingly effective framework employed in Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Quichotte.
Rushdie’s Quichotte (pronounced key-shot) is a man, too, for whom the dark present of the 21st century world, in its confusion and disharmony, has lost its appeal. Following a devastating “Interior Event” that renders impossible his previous life as a professor and journalist, he turns to work as a travelling pharmaceutical sales rep in the employ of his crooked cousin, and becomes obsessed with junk television in “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen”:
There were no rules anymore. And in the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, well, anything could happen. Old friends could become new enemies and traditional enemies could be your new besties or even lovers. It was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcome of elections. A woman might fall in love with a piglet, or a man start living with an owl…A flood might drown your city. A tornado might carry your house to a faraway land where, upon landing, it would squash a witch. Criminals could become kings and kings be unmasked as criminals…Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents.
Determined to win the heart of Miss Salma R, a famous talk show personality with a privileged, troubled life full of addiction and mental health struggles, the relentlessly optimistic Quichotte begins to write love letters to his “Beloved.” He journeys to New York City to find her and declare to this stranger his chivalric intentions. Along the way, a sidekick named – you guessed it – Sancho, magically joins him. Sancho, a Pinocchio-like figure, is the son Quichotte never had and always wanted, sprung fully formed from his father’s imagination and longing to be a real boy.
Quichotte and Sancho’s trying progress across America in this road novel allows Rushdie to tackle some difficult subject matter, including the racism and violence the two men of Indian origin encounter while walking through a park, stopping at a camp ground, or eating in a diner. In the midst of one particularly bad beating from a group of three men, “ordinary and inoffensive in every way,” Sancho remarks, “don’t underestimate gray, dull, middle-aged white men in suits, ever again.”
Much of the novel is, in fact, convincingly concerned with the ways in which, as the world begins to come apart at the seams, white supremacy rears its ugly head, and political and social chaos reigns in the era of Trump. Seemingly ordinary and inoffensive Americans increasingly feel permission to reveal their most bigoted and hateful selves. The violent attack he endures leaves Sancho postulating, “Maybe it was because they were men who until recently had been tamed and under control and this unleashing, whatever caused it, was something new for them. Maybe they were still getting used to their power.” Our news feeds today are rife with examples of such unleashed individuals.
To further illustrate the metamorphosis of “normal” citizens and neighbours into unrecognizable creatures, in an homage to Eugène Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, Rushdie takes the father-son duo on a brief sojourn through the fictional town of Berenger, New Jersey, where the town’s inhabitants are turning into hostile mastodons. These ignorant and prejudiced mutants who “have contempt for education” and regard themselves as “the true Americans,” are a not-so-subtle reference to those promoting a return to an anachronistic vision of an homogeneous America.
Further complicating an already convoluted story that boldly, and humorously, tackles some of our most pressing concerns – climate crisis, the opioid crisis, racism and bigotry, the numbing banality of TV and the internet, and the stark loneliness of modern life – Rushdie introduces a kind of meta-narrative layer early in the book that runs parallel to Quichotte’s story. Brother is Quichotte’s author, “a New York-based writer of Indian origin who had previously written eight modestly (un)successful spy fictions,” who finds himself inspired to turn his hand to a very different sort of writing. As his “shadow-self” protagonist’s journey unfolds, so too does Brother’s, especially regarding the desire to heal strained relationships with his sister and his son. As the two fictional universes whimsically converge at the end of the novel, we’re left to reconsider the true nature and power of storytelling.
Many of Rushdie’s novels are about their author, a man who has never shied away from mining his own considerable life experiences as cultural forces have shaped him and his fiction. His work repeatedly questions and complicates notions of home, family, and identity – particularly for people living far from their birthplace. Quichotte may, however, be one of Rushdie’s most personal works in its exploration of familial love and bonds, the need to find purpose in an increasingly confounding world, and the role of the author. A frequently bewildering read befitting our equally bewildering times, Quichotte is ultimately and hopefully about connection and love as the path forward:
Love brought me to town and here I stand, therefore, surrounded by the million million connections between this one and that one, between near and far, between this language and that language, between everything that men are and everything else that they are, and I see that the Way requires me to reconnect with the great thronging crowd of life, to its multiplicity, and beyond its many disharmonies, to its deeper harmonies.
Salman Rushdie, a novelist and essayist, won the Booker Prize for his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children. Author of over ten novels, Rusdhie has won countless awards for his fiction and nonfiction.