Fiction within fiction

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 01.11.2019

The title tells it all! Quichotte, Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, pays homage to Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece. And it does so in more ways than one as soon as he has his Quichotte and his Sancho hit the road in contemporary America. They face racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence on the way, while Donald Trump hovers over the tale as a ghostly absence.

Ours, we are told, is “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen”. The 390-page-long novel creates lots of different moods and atmospheres. It is both sentimental and comic, a playful mix of realism and metafiction, of sci-fi and melodrama. But the narrative is, above all, sugared with love in numerous guises – romantic (and largely impossible!), sibling, parental and filial. Puns and verbal games abound, so do lists of various kinds. Traditional narrative detail alternates with magic realist moments.

Like his model, Rushdie’s hidalgo can be described as a crazy old fool with a particular kind of nobility, yet, like the latter, he is also an everyman. He is a universal figure as well as a character that closely reflects the period he is living in, a period in which identity politics and mob rule loom larger than ever.

A 70-year-old travelling salesman of Indian origin, Quichotte falls in love with a daytime talk-show host, a “titanic cultural influencer” who is also of Indian descent. He believes that conquering her entails going through a series of ordeals in order to prove himself worthy of her love. So while Cervantes’ Dulcinea was a mere dream figure, Salma R is a national treasure who enters millions of homes and tawdry motel rooms day by day. Obviously, trash TV has long replaced chivalric romances in a country where everyone is in thrall to celebrity!

Sancho, meanwhile, is Quichotte’s longed for imaginary son who is trying very hard to be a real person, while an Italian speaking cricket offers him guidance and magical help. There is also a handgun ever ready to give advice and prepared to act intrusively at times.

A second plot revolves around Sam DuChamp, an ageing New York-based author who is in the middle of writing the Quichotte novel you have just started reading… Both plots keep echoing each other, with Rushdie himself playing God in all of it. East meets west, the past reflects the present, and there are heavy debts to Ionesco, as well as to Attar’s The Conference of the Birds.

As so often in Rushdie, the sprawling tale has a particular self-reflective quality, raising lots of questions around the creative process itself and the purpose of novel writing. Serious matters are examined with a comic note. Lightness wins the day again and again, although there are also darker pages evoking the opioid crisis, cyberwar, Brexit and fragmented identities. Nothing seems straightforward any longer! As a visitor comments on Sam DuChamp’s Quichotte: “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.”

You might argue that Rushdie’s tale is slightly clichéd at times and a bit long, especially towards the end when a sci-fi inspired strand drags on and on, but then again you will be tempted to go with the flow in most chapters. If the test of good novel writing is whether the reader cares about the characters and wants to know what will happen next, Rushdie wins hands down. The energy and inventiveness of his prose will take you by surprise all along the picaresque road trip. As a stunning hall of mirrors is coming your way, numerous twists and turns will keep you on your toes. Clearly, this “universal Don” has more than one surprise up his sleeve!

Salman Rushdie, Quichotte, Jonathan Cape, 2019; ISBN 978-1-78733-191-4

Janine Goedert
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