Review | Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte brings Cervantes’ epic Don Quixote into the modern age
- An ever playful, layered retelling of the tragi-comedy sees the delusional Don Quixote reborn as an ageing Indian salesman tilting at reality television
by Salman Rushdie
Is Quichotte – which has been longlisted for 2019’s Man Booker – the novel Salman Rushdie was born to write? An update of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the story is by turns personal and satirical, funny and sad, forbidding and intimate. Writing in 2016, Rushdie noted that Cervantes, like Shakespeare, shared “the belief that a work of literature doesn’t have to be simply comic, or tragic, or romantic, or political/historical: that, if properly conceived, it can be many things at the same time”.
Of course, one could say much the same thing about Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Rushdie’s exacting 2015 take on the One Thousand and One Nights. Or Midnight’s Children, his modern classic from 1981 whose magic realism opening paid homage to Laurence Sterne’s 18th century proto-magic realism in Tristram Shandy.
What all his homages share is the playfulness of the source material, which in the case of Cervantes extends, with meta-playfulness, to its own source material. Don Quixote’s mock-heroic mock hero is so infatuated with books about chivalry, that he first neglects the management of his property, and then his own reason: “He spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits.”
The first sign of Quixote’s delusion is his decision to become a knight at arms, enlisting Sancho Panza as the sidekick to begin all sidekicks, and focusing his new-found ardour on the person of Dulcinea del Toboso (a farm girl named Aldonza Lorenzo).
Quixote’s altered state owes something to the alluring, if anachronistic visions of knights errant doing battle for noble causes and the hands of distressed damsels. But, as Cervantes wittily suggests, there is something in the original prose that can drive a reader to distraction: “The reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your beauty.”
Rushdie’s literary detractors may well shout at this point: we know how Don Quixote felt, and not in a good way. By prioritising the picaresque, the parenthetical, the knowing and the startling over conventional (if that is the mot juste) conceptions of plot and narrative, Rushdie’s fictions bemuse, infuriate and bore with the best of postmodern fiction.
His advocates will parry that these tactics are not only as old as storytelling itself, they are the very stuff of storytelling, and have been used by the greatest writers across the world, from Gabriel García Márquez to, well, Cervantes himself to entertain and astonish, surprise and delight.
Rushdie repays Cervantes’ playfulness by naming his own updated and adapted hero after another updated adaptation: composer Jules Massenet’s 1910 opera Don Quichotte. The allusion prepares us for the specific kinds of liberties Rushdie will take, not only freely reimagining Cervantes’ original story, but inserting his own life into the narrative: Massenet’s empathy for Quichotte extended to his passion for Dulcinea, played by soprano Lucy Arbell.
Rushdie’s Quichotte updates – or perhaps uploads – Quixote by transforming him into an ageing travelling salesman “of Indian origin”, whose many years on the road in America have exposed him to hallucinogenic levels of low-grade television: the “dramas of housewives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and New York”, the endless competitions (“singing … cooking … business apprenticeships … between remote-controlled monster vehicles”) and contests (“baseball … basketball … football … and of course beauty”).
“Incapable of distinguishing … reality from ‘reality’, Quichotte begins to think of himself as a natural citizen (and potential inhabitant) of that imaginary world beyond the screen to which he was devoted, and which, he believed provided him, and therefore everyone, with the moral, social and practical guidelines by which all men and women should live.”
He christens this world “Anything-Can-Happen”. Like Quixote, Quichotte finds a Sancho Panza – an imaginary son – and a romantic embodiment of his own “Anything-Can-Happen”: Indian-born actress and daytime-television chat-show star, Miss Salma R.
The gender switch accomplished by the cunning removal of the letter “n”, which turns Salman into Salma, is an autobiographical tease too obvious to ignore. Clues are planted like gossip throughout. Sancho chooses June 19 for his birthday, which happens to be Salman R’s, too: “A man’s shadow comes loose from the man somewhere …” Quichotte recalls his lost loves – “the public relations dazzler, the antipodean adventuress, the American liar, the English rose, the ruthless Asian beauty” – a fictional procession that corresponds pretty accurately to Rushdie’s four (divorced) wives and another well-publicised girlfriend. Salma R’s story more or less follows Rushdie’s trajectory from Mumbai to New York, albeit without the lengthy pit stop in England.
Just in case this feels too autobiographical for comfort, Rushdie bewitches us with another sleight of hand that exposes the story of Salma R and Quichotte as itself a fiction – one invented by Sam DuChamp, Rushdie’s version of Cervantes’ narrator, “Cide Hamete Benengeli”. Sam DuChamp is also a pseudonym, for an unsuccessful Indian writer of spy thrillers, whom Rushdie calls “Brother”. His sister, a high-flying London lawyer, is called (almost inevitably) “Sister”.
These continually reproducing layers of fact upon fiction upon faction is exhilarating and bewildering. Hardly anyone has a single identity, whether it is James Bond (whose name Ian Fleming stole from a real-life Jamaican ornithologist) or Farrokh Bulsara (whose name was subsumed by his showbiz alter ego, Freddie Mercury). In his Quixotic fantasies, DuChamp’s wildly unsuccessful novels become the wildly successful vehicles for Salma R’s wildly successful career in Hollywood; in his reality, they attract the unwelcome attention of the American government who read their fictions as fact.
Sancho calls on Pinocchio and Peter Pan to make him a flesh-and-blood boy. A mysterious Indian “science billionaire” named Evel Cent (could that be Elon Musk?), is either a “self-promoting capitalist fart” or a prophet who reads about the end of the world in a science-fiction magazine.
What Cervantes has taught Rushdie is the revolutionary potential of delusion, which inspires Quixote to see nobility in an ordinary man like Sancho and beauty in a farm girl like Aldonza. DuChamp translates this during an apology for his own ungrounded narrative sprawl: “So many stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations.” These relationships have migrated across the world, and “may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world”.
The “picaresque and crazy and dangerous” Quichotte is his response to this flux: to a broken reality so imbued with fake news that it is unreal, so virtual that is immaterial, and whose power balance is in new states of flux, as DuChamp acknowledges when he writes about his “newly inward gaze, his returned yearning for his lost home in the East”.
In his 2016 essay, Rushdie wrote about the “infinitely moving moment” that follows Quixote’s pratfalls and nobility when “the real world asserts itself and [he] accepts that he has been a foolish, mad old man, looking for this year’s birds in last year’s nests”.
A final acceptance, at once vast, artistic and supremely intimate, is of endings. Towards the end of Quichotte, the novel takes on a life of its own as if to remind its author of their simultaneous completions: “His book had been talking about death all the way.” Suddenly, the diverse issues raised along Quichotte’s meandering way – about home and refugees, identity and citizenship, justice and family, life and art – boil down to two. What is true love? And “was I a man or was I a jerk?”
Don Quixote, Quichotte, fiction, portals or even soap operas may not provide answers, but they do limitless service by making us ask the questions over and over (and over) again.